“It was at that point that I began to hate Sihanouk.”
-Khmer writer Soth Polin on Preap In’s treatment
On this date in 1964, Cambodian dissident Preap In was shot in Trapeang Kraleung … an execution so public that every cinema-goer in the country would witness it.
This is the Cambodia of Narodom Sihanouk — “a libertine and a francophile, a filmmaker and a painter, a serial husband and father and philanderer, a cherubic but ruthless god-king,” in the words of one obituary when he died late last year.
Plucked from the distant branches of the royal family tree and set up on the throne as an 18-year-old French puppet in 1941, Sihanouk cast a long shadow over his country for the balance of his long life. He surprised his colonial overseers by agitating, successfully, for independence, adding to his regal stature the laurels of national patrimony.
He would in 1955 abdicate the throne — settling for “Prince Sihanouk” — to operate as a conventional politician. One who was the father of his country and the shadow-king. Needless to say, Sihanouk dominated the ensuing era of Cambodian politics.
That politics makes for dizzying reading. At one level, Sihanouk was basically an autocrat with a fairly corrupt developing state. But his statecrafting finesse elevated him far above the bog-standard Cold War dictator. Sihanouk dextrously played the French off against the Americans, East off against West, and shifted the tone of his domestic governance from socialism to Buddhism to nationalism with everything in between. He was a consummate survivor steering a small state on an independent course through the dangers of Cold War ideologies and allegiances.
In 1963-64, Sihanouk’s relations with the United States were on the outs.* Although Sihanouk was also a rival of the late Vietnamese ruler Ngo Dinh Diem, he can’t have welcomed that man’s ouster and execution with the blessing of the superpower sitting right next door with so much megatonnage.
Long story short, Sihanouk as part of his geopolitical machinations had been firing demands at the Americans that they prevail upon their Southeast Asian clientele to put the screws to the Khmer Serei — who used extraterritorial bases to send radio broadcasts into Cambodia. In late 1963, the young engineering student Preap In, who had become a Khmer Serei operative, slipped back into Cambodia with a safe conduct from his uncle In Tam.
Though he would later help to overthrow it, In Tam was a powerful political figure in Sihanouk’s state, at this time governor of Takeo. But he was setting up his nephew or else someone else was, and the “safe conduct” proved an utter sham.
On November 19, at a special national congress, Sihanouk announced the arrest of the two Khmer Serei operatives, Saing San and Preap In … After several conversations with officials in Takeo, In and Saing San had been arrested peremptorily, brought to Phnom Penh under guard, and put on display in cages at the national congress. Facing the prisoners and surrounded by thousands of supporters, Sihanouk denied making any special arrangements with them, and the congress soon became an impromptu judicial hearing. Sihanouk asked both men to admit that the Americans were aiding Son Ngoc Thanh and providing the Khmer Serei with radio transmitters. Saing San said yes to both questions and was immediately released. Preap In, apparently in shock, stared straight to the front, refusing to answer. Sihanouk then demanded that he be subjected to the “will of the congress.” Hundreds of spectators stormed the cage where Preap In stood in silence, bombarding him with rubber sandals, debris, and abuse until he was hustled away to face trial at the hands of a military court. (Source)
Sihanouk’s official version: Preap In “spontaneously confessed” to treason.
Sihanouk not only advanced the public shooting of the young Khmer Serei, but he ordered it filmed; the graphic 15-minute newsreel was played before feature attractions in cinemas throughout Cambodia for weeks to come, while still shots of the execution were distributed on propaganda posters.
Authoritarian Sihanouk may have been, but theatrical bloodletting wasn’t otherwise known as his style. Preap In’s lasciviously rough treatment stood out for its novelty and revolted many Cambodians; David Chandler would remark that this event “frequently surfaced in the 1980s when informants sought to date the beginning of Sihanouk’s decline.” Despite that onetime multimedia exposure, if the video or still images from it are accessible online I have not found them. This still image from a (I believe) Sihanouk-era firing squad execution is the best I’ve got, but as my Khmer is a little rusty, I’m at a loss to identify the unfortunate fellow on the post.
* For the view from Washington, see this contemporaneous CIA analysis, a FOIA’ed pdf.