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Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak (January 22, 1914 — April 21, 1975) was a member of the Cambodian royal family, the Varman dynasty.

Sirik Matak was mainly notable for his involvement in Cambodian politics, particularly for his involvement in the 1970 right-wing coup against his cousin, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, and for his subsequent establishment, along with Lon Nol, of the Khmer Republic.

Contents

Involvement in Politics in Cambodia

Sirik Matak was born in Phnom Penh, and was a member of the Sisowath branch of the Varman dynasty, being the great-grandson of Sisowath of Cambodia. He was recruited into the colonial civil service in 1930.

Under the colonial French-imposed constitution, any member of the Norodom or Sisowath branches of the family could be selected as king, and Sirik Matak was therefore one of the possible contenders to the Cambodian throne. In 1941, after the death of King Sisowath Monivong, the French authorities selected Sirik Matak's cousin Norodom Sihanouk to be King, believing him to be relatively pliant. Sihanouk later accused Sirik Matak of harbouring a deep resentment against him, stating that he "hated me from childhood days because he thought his uncle, Prince Sisowath Monireth, should have been placed on the throne instead of myself. He even had a notion that he himself should have been chosen".[1]

After the Second World War, Sirik Matak became increasingly involved in Cambodian politics. As a part of the right-wing 'Khmer Renovation' party headed by Lon Nol, he took part in the National Assembly elections in 1947, though the party failed to win any seats.[2] Sihanouk, then acting as Prime Minister, placed him in charge of Defence in 1952,[3] formally appointing him Minister of Defence in the interim government set up after independence in 1954; Sihanouk's Sangkum movement absorbed the Khmer Renovation Party prior to the Sangkum victory in the 1955 elections.

Despite the incorporation of much of the right-wing opposition into the Sangkum, Sirik Matak remained an implacable opponent of Sihanouk, and especially of the latter's toleration of North Vietnamese activity within Cambodia's borders. Throughout the 1960s, Sihanouk attempted to minimize Sirik Matak's leverage on domestic politics by successively appointing him as Ambassador to China, the Philippines, and Japan.

Cambodian coup of 1970

The three men behind the coup of 1970. From left to right, Sirik Matak, Lon Nol, and In Tam.

Sirik Matak's power increased substantially after Lon Nol became Prime Minister in August 1969. Appointed Lon Nol's deputy, he proceeded to organise a series of economic denationalisation and deregulation measures in opposition to Sihanouk's previous policy of state control of import and export, banking, and production of pharmaceuticals and alcohol.[4] On March 18, 1970, while Sihanouk was on a trip abroad, Prince Sirik Matak assisted Lon Nol in organising a vote of the National Assembly to depose Sihanouk as head of state. The pretext was given by a series of anti-Vietnamese riots - likely encouraged by the Prime Minister and his deputy - in front of the North Vietnamese embassy. Foreign media subsequently suggested that Sirik Matak, who continued as Lon Nol's deputy in the new government, was the real organisational force behind the coup;[5] it was claimed that in order to finally convince Lon Nol, Sirik Matak had played him a tape-recorded press conference from Paris, in which Sihanouk threatened to execute them both on his return to Phnom Penh.[6] It was even reported that Sirik Matak had compelled Lon Nol at gunpoint to commit to deposing Sihanouk.[7]

Sihanouk also assumed his cousin to be the main force behind the coup, claiming that Sirik Matak (backed by the CIA, and in contact with long-time Sihanouk opponent Son Ngoc Thanh) had already suggested the plan to Lon Nol as early as 1969.[8] Sihanouk's suspicions seem to have rooted in fact: Prom Thos, one of Lon Nol's ministers, later told the historian Ben Kiernan that in around March 1969 Sirik Matak had argued that Sihanouk should be assassinated, Lon Nol rejecting the plan as "criminal insanity".[9]

With the declaration of the Khmer Republic subsequent to the coup, Sirik Matak renounced his royal title, although he had initially planned in secret that his own son, or another member of the Sisowath family, possibly his son-in-law Prince Sisowath Duongchivin, should take the throne.[10]

Lon Nol's regime is known to have been behind the massacre of thousands of ethnic Vietnamese residents in the period immediately after the its takeover. There is evidence that Sirik Matak may have privately made efforts to halt these killings.

In the government of the Khmer Republic

For the first year of the Republic, during which Lon Nol was often in poor health, Sirik Matak - as acting Premier - retained the most prominent role in the government. It had an overtly military character, Sirik Matak usually appearing in his full uniform as a Major-General and carrying a swagger stick.[11] Whereas Lon Nol was particularly popular amongst anti-Sihanouk students in Cambodian cities, Sirik Matak had the support of the Westernised urban 'elite'; rural Cambodians remained overwhelmingly pro-Sihanouk.[12] Sirik Matak also had relatively little personal support within the Cambodian political establishment; his power was gradually undermined by the Prime Minister's brother, Lon Non, and he resigned in 1972 after the latter had organised a series of demonstrations against him.[13] Despite pressure from the United States, who were strong supporters of Sirik Matak, Lon Nol kept him under effective house arrest, and he became an increasingly vocal critic of the Khmer Republic regime.

By April 1973, Lon Nol had been compelled to remove Lon Non and suspended the National Assembly, appointing a "High Political Council" composed of himself, Sirik Matak, Cheng Heng and In Tam.[14] Privately, however, Sirik Matak stated that under the circumstances it would be preferable to allow Sihanouk to return, due to his levels of popular support, stating "if the people wanted him, I would accept". On being informed of this, an enraged Sihanouk called Sirik Matak "one of the worst reactionaries and traitors of the history of Cambodia [...] we are going to hang him, quite simply hang him, hang him".[15]

The Fall of Phnom Penh

The Khmer Rouge communists initiated their dry-season offensive to capture the beleaguered Cambodian capital on January 1, 1975. On April 1, 1975, President Lon Nol resigned and fled the country into exile in Hawaii; the Khmer Rouge had published a 'death list' with his name at the top, and their forces had now surrounded the capital.

On April 12, 1975, United States's Ambassador to Cambodia John Gunther Dean, offered high officials of the Khmer Republic political asylum in the United States, but Sirik Matak, Long Boret and Lon Non, along with other members of Lon Nol's cabinet, declined - despite the names of Boret and Sirik Matak being published by the Khmer Rouge in a list of "Seven Traitors" marked down for execution.[16] Sirik Matak's written response to the ambassador stated: "I cannot, alas, leave in such a cowardly fashion [...] I never believed for a moment that you would have this sentiment of abandoning a people which has chosen liberty. I have committed this mistake of believing in you, the Americans." According to Francois Bizot, Sirik Matak distributed copies of the letter in Phnom Penh.

Sirik Matak and the officials that remained along with him were likely executed by the Khmer Rouge on April 21, 1975. Communications from the French Embassy stated that he had initially sought political asylum there, but was taken away by a group of soldiers a few days later: Bizot reported that the Khmer Rouge had threatened to come into the compound and remove certain individuals by force if they did not go voluntarily. The exact details of his death are unclear, but Sihanouk received confirmation that Sirik Matak, along with Long Boret, had been summarily executed by firing squad at the Phnom Penh Cercle Sportif on April 21; other reports state he was beheaded. Henry Kissinger and others, however, note a report that Sirik Matak was shot in the stomach and left without medical aid to die over three days.[17]

Sirik Matak was married to Princess Norodom Kethneari; his son Prince Sisowath Sirirath (1946-) is currently one of the leaders of the royalist FUNCINPEC political party.

Quotes

  • "When you support a regime not supported by the people you help the communists"
  • Letter to US Ambassador to Cambodia John Gunther Dean: "Dear Excellency and Friend, I thank you very sincerely for your letter and your offer to transport me towards freedom. I cannot, alas, leave in such a cowardly fashion. As for you, and in particular for your great country, I never believed for a moment that you would have this sentiment of abandoning a people, which has chosen liberty. You have refused us your protection, and we can do nothing about it. You leave, and my wish is that you and your country will find happiness under this sky. But, mark it well, that if I shall die here on the spot and in my country that I love, it is too bad, because we are all born and must die one day. I have committed this mistake of believing in you, the Americans. Please accept, Excellency, my dear friend, my faithful and friendly sentiments. Prince Sirik Matak."[1]

External links

References

  1. ^ Norodom Sihanouk, My War with the CIA, Pantheon, 1972, p.27
  2. ^ Dommen, A. The Indochinese experience of the French and the Americans, Indiana University Press, 2001, p.196
  3. ^ Dommen, p.210
  4. ^ Sihanouk, p.41
  5. ^ The Man Behind the Symbol, TIME, 17-05-71
  6. ^ Marlay, R. and Neher, C. Patriots and tyrants, Rowman & Littlefield, 1999, p.165
  7. ^ Tucker, S. Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: a political, social, and military history, ABC-CLIO, 1998, p.389
  8. ^ Sihanouk, pp.36-38
  9. ^ Kiernan, B. How Pol Pot came to power, Yale UP, 2004, p.301
  10. ^ Sorpong Peou, Intervention & change in Cambodia, Palgrave Macmillan, p.49
  11. ^ Kamm, H. Cambodia: report from a stricken land, Arcade, 1998, p.61
  12. ^ Sorpong Peou, p.91
  13. ^ Kamm, pp.110-112
  14. ^ Leifer, M. Selected Works on Southeast Asia, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2005, p.420
  15. ^ Kamm, p.114
  16. ^ The "Seven Traitors" were Sirik Matak, Lon Nol, Son Ngoc Thanh, In Tam, Long Boret, Cheng Heng, and Sosthene Fernandez.
  17. ^ Kissinger, H. Ending the Vietnam War, Touchstone, 2003, p.530
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