Norodom Sihanouk, a Cambodian life

The man who was variously Cambodia's anti-colonial leader, king, prime minister, prince, and exiled figurehead is inseparable from his country's modern history, says David Chandler.

David Chandler
19 October 2012

The death of Norodom Sihanouk in Beijing on 15 October 2012 marks the end of one of the most remarkable careers in international politics over the last century. The former king of Cambodia packed so many lives into his 89 years. A full accounting of his legacy is for the future, but his passing offers the opportunity for a tentative assessment of how this mercurial, passionate figure might be remembered.

The only child of a minor prince and a royal princess, Sihanouk never expected to be king of Cambodia. The event that led to this outcome was the death of his maternal grandfather, King Sisowath Monivong, in April 1941. At the time Sihanouk was a gifted though unassuming 18-year-old student at a Saigon lycée, whence he was plucked by the French colonial authorities and crowned. Japanese forces had - with French acquiescence - occupied "Indo-China" (comprising modern Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos) since mid-1941, and the French believed that the teenager would be more manageable on Cambodia's throne than any of the other candidates. Sihanouk repaid their trust by becoming a lifelong Francophile: he once remarked that the two historical figures he most revered were the Buddha and Charles de Gaulle.

In March 1945, fearful of an Allied invasion, the Japanese imprisoned French officials throughout their colony and told local, puppet rulers that their domains were now independent. Sihanouk responded cautiously and a few months later, when the war was over, he welcomed back the French. In doing so, he displayed what would be enduring characteristics: an astute assessment of political dynamics and an eagerness to remain in power.

Over the next few years, as France made more concessions to Cambodia, Sihanouk played a constitutionalist role. But in 1952, when he judged that the French were losing the first Indo-China war against Vietnamese guerrillas, he abandoned that strategy and launched a "royal crusade for independence". He wrested Cambodia from the French at the end of 1953, and Cambodia became an independent state. This was six months before Vietnam formally obtained its own independence at the Geneva conference of 1954.

Sihanouk, emboldened by his success, then abdicated in 1955, named his father king, and founded a national political movement that swept the elections later that year. For the next fifteen years, until l970, Prince Sihanouk (as he had become) and his movement dominated Cambodian politics. Sihanouk served successively as prime minister and chief-of-state, and acquired a reputation as a benevolent despot. Yet his patriotism, his genuine fondness for ordinary Khmer and his irrepressible joie de vivre were balanced by his impatience with economic issues, his ruthless suppression of dissent and his belief that whatever happened, he alone embodied the Cambodian nation.

In regional and international terms, Sihanouk pursued a "non-aligned" policy. This enabled him to keep Cambodia out of the escalating Vietnam war for as long as he could, but as the war intensified his luck ran out. In March 1970, while he was travelling abroad, he was overthrown in a bloodless, parliamentary, pro-American coup. Cambodia was swiftly swept into the war, with predictably devastating results.

The routes from exile

Sihanouk was enraged by his dismissal. From his exile in Beijing, he soon allied himself with China, North Vietnam and the concealed Cambodian communist movement, which he had earlier nicknamed the Khmer Rouge (Red Khmers). He urged his allies to liberate Cambodia on his behalf, and for the next five years presided over a government-in-exile that gave diplomatic legitimacy to the Khmer Rouge, whose leaders never told him about their plans in the event they should come to power.

When the victorious Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh on 17 April 1975, Sihanouk stayed on as the titular head of state. But the empowered , radical Khmer Rouge gave him little to do and in 1976 they placed him and his wife Monique under house-arrest in the capital. By then the Khmer Rouge had named their regime Democratic Kampuchea (DK) and inaugurated a set of murderous utopian policies, some of them borrowed from Maoist China. In less than four years these led to the untimely deaths of over 1.5 million Cambodians, including several of Sihanouk’s children.

In 1977, a border war broke out with Vietnam (which had been unified since the end of the war on 30 April 1975). When Vietnam invaded DK at the end of 1978, the Khmer Rouge authorities released Sihanouk and sent him to New York to argue DK’s case at the United Nations. In early January 1979, however, Vietnamese forces reached Phnom Penh and DK collapsed. Sihanouk again went into exile in Beijing, this time also staying in North Korea as the guest of the dictator Kim Il-Sung, whom he had befriended in the 1970s.

The pro-Vietnamese socialist regime established in Phnom Penh struggled during the 1980s to restore the country after the chaos inflicted by DK. The regime - dominated after 1979 by the Cambodian Peoples’ Party (CPP) - was hampered by the fact that for cold-war reasons DK retained Cambodia’s seat at the United Nations. As a result, no UN assistance and very little aid from countries outside the Soviet bloc reached Cambodia for more than a decade after the Khmer Rouge's overthrow.

Sihanouk spent the 1980s presiding over a so called "coalition government-in-exile" made up of royalist, non-royalist and DK factions, operating out of Thailand. This disingenuous concoction allowed a DK representative to hold onto Cambodia’s seat at the UN. After prolonged negotiations, a multinational conference convened in Paris in October 1991 and agreed to place Cambodia under a United Nations protectorate pending national elections.

The circles of power

Toward the end of 1992, Sihanouk returned home for the first time in thirteen years. He was welcomed in Phnom Penh by a tumultuous crowd. For the remainder of the UN mandate he presided over a powerless body called the Supreme National Council, subordinate to the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (Untac) as it proceeded with its costly and cumbersome mission.

UN-sponsored national elections were held in July 1993 and drew over 90% of registered voters to the polls: an enormous and relatively peaceful success. A royalist party led by Sihanouk's eldest son, Norodom Rannaridh won the most votes; but Sihanouk knew that the runner-up Cambodian Peoples’ Party saw the royalist victory as a usurpation. The prince cajoled the royalists into a fragile power-sharing agreement with the previously dominant CPP, and this lasted for another five years. In doing so he undermined his son and betrayed the pro royalist voters, while forestalling a possible civil war and gaining some freedom of manoeuvre for himself.

At the end of 1993, Sihanouk was crowned king of Cambodia for the second time. At that point, he insisted on the restoration of a host of symbols from pre-1970 days: the Cambodian flag used in that era, Phnom Penh's street names, the national anthem and military uniforms. These nostalgic arrangements papered over the 1970 coup and all the years that followed.

The Sihanouk of the 1990s was still energetic and ambitious, but the CPP prime minister Hun Sen held the real power and gave the restored king limited authority while denying him media outlets and sustained contacts with the population. Sihanouk chafed under these restrictions and spent much of his time in Beijing. In 2004 he abdicated the throne for the second time, and was succeeded by his unmarried and childless youngest son, Norodom Sihamoni (1955-).

For the next eight years Sihanouk, now known as the King Father, remained domiciled for the most part in Beijing. By the end of the decade his health was failing and his approach to life, according to people close to him, became uncharacteristically subdued.

Norodom Sihanouk is inseparable from the history of 20th-century Cambodia and a balanced evaluation of his seventy-year-long political career is difficult to assemble. He certainly overshadowed the country in his years in power in the 1950s and 1960s, and in that period he strode the world stage with fervour, confidence and brio. He also made many serious mistakes, such as supporting the Khmer Rouge.

Today, monarchy is losing its importance in Cambodia, and the era when Sihanouk led Cambodia is not taught in Cambodian schools. So it’s worth remembering that this hard-working, eloquent, life-enhancing descendant of the kings of Angkor displayed throughout his long and sometimes tempestuous life an unswerving commitment to Cambodia and a heartfelt identification with its people. These two traits have been hard to find in most Cambodian rulers before and since.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData