The king is dead

October 17, 2012

King Norodom Sihanouk, who has died in Beijing aged 89, would have been an extraordinary figure wherever he had been born: being ruler of a country like Cambodia, at a point when it was a regional geopolitical fulcrum, meant his importance became magnified to an almost impossible degree. He was an apt figurehead for a nation that, over his lifetime, and often under his rule, saw an extraordinary range of political systems vie for dominance, with often tragic results.

Charming, charismatic and ruthless, Sihanouk was crowned in 1941, and over the next 60 years was alternately king, prime minister, Khmer Rouge figurehead, exiled leader, king again, and then king father. He won independence for Cambodia from the French in 1953, then gave up the throne to run in the country’s first independent elections. Through repression, vote rigging and the ignorance of the peasantry, he won, and set about reforging the country.

The years 1955 to 1970 were relatively good ones for Cambodia. Sihanouk began educating and improving the lot of the population, and the political movement he headed, known as the Sangkum Reaystr Niyum, practiced a benign if woolly-headed Buddhist socialism.

In cosmopolitan Phnom Penh, French and Khmer high society rubbed shoulders happily, revelling in a flowering of Cambodian art and culture. Sihanouk spent much of his time playing the saxophone and making films, with himself as cameraman, lighting director, scriptwriter, director, producer and leading man. Architecturally distinctive buildings went up, magazines and newspapers flourished, and amazing musicians flocked to the riverside clubs to play the nights away.

But outside the wealthy capital, darker forces were stirring. The war in Vietnam was encroaching on Cambodia’s borders, and Sihanouk, stupidly, allowed Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger to bomb the border regions to disrupt Vietcong supply lines. The resulting death tolls, coupled with the lack of economic growth, meant Sihanouk was ousted in a coup in 1970.

Persuaded by the Chinese that the United States were responsible for his overthrow, he allowed himself to become the figurehead for the Khmer Rouge, a rag-tag rural communist guerilla force who eventually won the civil war in 1975, helped by Sihanouk’s prestige and god-like status amongst the peasantry. His decision to ally himself with the Khmer Rouge was an odd one for both sides, as he had fought them for a number of years; as they had fought to overthrow him.

Sihanouk returned to Phnom Penh and was installed as president in the Royal Palace by the murderous Khmer Rouge, where he was put under house arrest after the first year, while 1.7 million of his former subjects were killed in one of the worst pieces of autogenocide the world has ever seen.

When the Vietnamese invaded in 1979, Sihanouk was released, but instead of being grateful, he spent the next dozen years acting as ’a figleaf of respectability for the Khmer Rouge’ as the rest of the world lined up to try and get Vietnam out of Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge, disgracefully, were allowed to keep the country’s seat at the United Nations, so inflexible was the attitude of the US towards the hated Vietnam.

Eventually, with the end of the Cold War, the geopolitical waves washing through South East Asia calmed, Vietnam withdrew from Cambodia, and the UN stepped in to essay a fragile sort of quasi-democracy, with Sihanouk returning to the throne in 1993.

He still wasn’t finished with politics, helping the ruthless Hun Sen engineer a coup against his own son, Norodom Rannaridh. Hun Sen has been in power ever since, heading up a vast patronage network quite as corrupt and self-serving as anything a royal family could dream up.

Sihanouk eventually abdicated in favour of one of his 13 or 14 children in 2004, and spent most of his time in North Korea or Beijing as a guest of the Chinese government, in increasingly poor health.

Often criticized for his dramatic political flip-flopping, Sihanouk said he followed only one course: “the defense of the independence, the territorial integrity and the dignity of my country and my people.”

The New York Times quoted Michael Leifer, a professor at the London School of Economics, as saying “the record of the man … would suggest a greater facility for reigning than for ruling.” I’d say that was a pretty kind judgment.

The country was celebrating a five-day national holiday when Sihanouk died: a holiday meant to remember one’s ancestors. Every house and business in Phnom Penh is now flying the country’s flag at half mast. In the eyes of the people of this country, he was a unifying national hero, and the fact that without his influence they would have fewer ancestors to honour, and more living relatives, seems not to matter.


Norodom Sihanouk at the Cambodia/Thai border with Khmer Rouge leaders  Ieng Sary and Khieu Samphan (wearing ties) in 1985. Picture copyright Roland Neveu



One Response to “The king is dead”

  1. Nick Bartle said

    That is another great piece Ru. I am learning so much.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: