Norodom Sihanouk: Mercurial politician who led Cambodia through years of turbulence


The legendary Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia guided his country through half a century of revolution and war in Indo-China. Although he began and ended his career as king, Sihanouk served for much of his time as Crown Prince, elected Prime Minister and for 20 years as ruler-in-exile. This interregnum began in 1970 when he was overthrown in his absence by a right-wing general, Lon Nol. Five years later, the Lon Nol regime was overthrown by the murderous Khmer Rouge communists, who subjected the land to the horror of the "Killing Fields".

From 1979, the Khmer Rouge engaged in a devastating war against Communist Vietnam. It was not until 1990 that Sihanouk came home from exile in Beijing to join in elections organised by the United Nations. In his last spell as ruler he helped to restore what was left of the country's cultural and religious institutions. Sihanouk became King once more but renounced the title in 2004, 50 years after his first abdication.

Sihanouk was a schoolboy when he came to the throne of a country still under French occupation. Although the Cambodians did not follow the Vietnamese in armed rebellion against the French, King Sihanouk saw the conflict in the adjoining land as a way of obtaining independence, which came in 1954. Even before then, Sihanouk had announced his intention to abdicate and to seek election as popular ruler.

Whether as King or elected Prime Minister, Sihanouk counted upon the loyalty, indeed veneration of the devoutly Buddhist peasants. He never ceased to remind the Khmers of their glorious past in the Kingdom of Angkor, which once reigned over much of modern Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. He was the patron and impresario of the Royal Ballet, whose dancing girls also formed his harem. Sihanouk travelled about the country, hearing complaints, administering justice, doling out gifts of money or bundles of clothes, and exchanging lewd jests with the peasant women.

Sihanouk marched with the times as patron of football, jazz – in which he excelled as saxophonist – and cinema, in which he performed as actor, cameraman and director. Yet Sihanouk's greatest performance came each year when he blessed the confluence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers just at the place and time when the waters reverse with the tide and flow upstream to the lake between Phnom Penh and Angkor, producing a second abundance of rice and fish.

Although Sihanouk flattered the pride of the Khmers in their ancient empire and their distinctive dark appearance, he did not encourage resentment against the light-skinned Chinese and Vietnamese, who formed the majority of the trading and artisan classes. Nevertheless, Prince Sihanouk frequently quarrelled and broke off diplomatic relations with Thailand, Laos, Communist North Vietnam and anti-Communist South Vietnam, where some of his own domestic foes had taken asylum.

A broadcast from Saigon in December 1963, including some rude remarks about Sihanouk's sexual adventures, led him to break with South Vietnam and its friend the United States. Sihanouk asked for help from China and seemed to have joined the Communist bloc. As a mark of respect for Communist China, Sihanouk closed down all Cambodia's nightclubs, at any rate all those not owned by his wife. Yet in spite of his newly found support and financial aid from China, Sihanouk frequently rounded up and expelled the Maoists in Phnom Penh's Chinese community.

During his heyday in the 1960s, Sihanouk relished state visits from foreign dignitaries such as De Gaulle and Tito and glamorous women like Princess Margaret and Jackie Kennedy. The monthly magazine Kambudja – editor: Prince Norodom Sihanouk – gave much space to these state occasions, with scores of photographs of the Prince. A prolific journalist, Sihanouk wisely kept out all those foreign colleagues who wrote rude things about Cambodia, in particular those who called it "small", or worse, "tiny". He once published a list of all the countries in the world ranked by population and size, proving that "tiny" Cambodia was far from the smallest.

An eclectic statesman, Sihanouk borrowed from England the concept of having a parliamentary opposition. In October 1966, a general election had brought in too many "wrong" MPs, critical of the Prince. As head of state he could have dismissed the elected regime and installed himself as Prime Minister. He sagely resisted this, saying instead that Cambodia now was to have a "Loyal Opposition". The Opposition was formed and started to publish a daily Bulletin of the Counter-Government – under the editorship of Sihanouk. Savage articles from his pen accused the government of corruption, sloth and incompotence, until the Prime Minister grew so upset that he had to resign – to be replaced by Prince Norodom Sihanouk.

The new Prime Minister continued to edit the Bulletin of the Counter Government, which like most of Cambodia's press, frequently carried reports on the Prince's dieting visits to Grasse or Vichy, with headlines like: "This week Prince Norodom Sihanouk lost 10 kilos". During his dieting visit to France in 1968, the Prince lost several kilos but then regained them when, in a visit to a local school, he first made a speech than took all the pupils out for a feast at a local pastry shop, matching them cake for cake.

Those aspects of Cambodian life that foreigners found strange, or even absurd, were nevertheless true to the country's tradition and culture. Buddha himself taught that the truth, the Middle Way, was sometimes arrived at through paradox and confusion. Sihanouk's parliamentary group was called the Royal Buddhist Socialist Party. Prince Sihanouk ruled in the style of emperors from Europe's Middle Ages. They too had been cultural mentors, priests of the state religion, philosophers of the national will and masters of public ceremony.

Prince Sihanouk had a distrust of westernisms and -ocracies. He was often attacked because Cambodia would not admit the hippies who roamed the East in the 1960s. An article in the Bulletin of the Counter-Government set out to justify this apparently harsh attitude. The writer first explained that Cambodians sympathised with the hippy dislike of modern western society; the Cambodians, too, were in revolt against industrialism, violence and hypocrisy. But in Cambodia, the article went on, "the advance of science has not yet destroyed the foundation of our culture, which remains firm. The visiting hippies would have more to learn from us than to teach us. And in order to learn they should modify their behaviour out of respect for our culture and thought."

After a visit to Cambodia in 1968, I wrote in parody of an American journalist visiting Lenin's Russia: "I have seen the past – and it works". Prince Sihanouk accepted this as a compliment.

We still do not know how or why Sihanouk fell from power during his absence abroad in March 1970. For some years the North Vietnamese had used Cambodia as a supply base and staging post for their troops in South Vietnam. Since 1969, the US had been bombing the North Vietnamese inside Cambodia. After his deportation, Sihanouk claimed the bombing was done without his knowledge or approval, but this is unlikely. Cambodia prospered during the 1960s by selling rice to the Vietnamese Communists in return for dollars bought on the black market in Saigon. However Sihanouk fretted about this Vietnamese presence, which offered encouragement to the local Communists to whom who he had given the nickname "Khmer Rouge".

On his return to power in the 1990s, Sihanouk reminded the Khmer that whatever the horror and suffering of the last two decades they still could look back with pride to medieval Angkor. Whatever the hungry years of war and collectivisation, the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers would still continue to change direction, filling the land with rice and fish.

Of all the politicians and generals from many nations who strutted through Indo-China during the last five decades, only Prince Norodom Sihanouk came away with a certain glory.

Norodom Sihanouk, politician: born Phnom Penh, French Indochina 31 October 1922; several wives and concubines and at least 14 children; died Beijing 15 October 2012.

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