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Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia: changing but unsinkable

It is too easy for armchair analysts, in the cosyness of their far away study, to deliver a death sentence to the historical reputation of a man who did what he thought was the only, the final thing to be done.

Patrice de Beer
16 October 2012

Former King of Cambodia, Norodom Sihanouk, who died in Peking, China, on Monday October15, was the last survivor of those great leaders from newly independent countries who had met in 1955 in Bandung, Indonesia, to give birth to a Third World which they wanted to be non-aligned between both West and East, the United States and the Soviet Union, refusing to be engulfed in a Cold War which they did not want to be theirs. Born in 1922, he was 89 when he died.

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Wikimedia Commons/JJ Georges. King Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia. Some rights reserved.

“Samdech”, Prince, as he liked to be called, was first of all a survivor. He outlived his Bandung partners, democratic Indian Prime Minister Nehru by 48 years as well as autocratic Egyptian and Indonesian leaders Nasser and Sukarno by 42 years and Communist Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai by 36 years. He also outlived the colonial period, when in 1941, the year Hitler invaded the USSR, the French installed this apparently foolish and easy-living young man on the throne of their protectorate, once the prestigious Kingdom of Angkor, in order to control it better. Easy-living, he remained a very long time, but foolish not. In 1953 he wrested independence not only from the French, who were bogged down in the first Vietnam war, but from right under the nose of the Vietnamese Communists, who wanted to build their own Indochinese empire, and from the Thais, eager to annex the western part of their neighbour.

A God King at the age of 19, he helped, sometimes single-handed, his kingdom to survive colonialism, his neighbours' greed, the ambitions of his political rivals and the three successive wars which shook Indochina – with the French, the Americans and the Vietnamese occupation of his country. Abdicating in favour of his father in 1955, he entered politics, ruling his country as a non-aligned, benevolent, flamboyant but sometimes ruthless Prime Minister, with the support of the French and the Chinese, always his most faithful ally. In March 1970, he survived the coup organised against him while he was away, by Prime Minister Lon Nol, supported by the Americans. He also survived the bloody Khmer Rouge regime, which he had supported against a President Nixon-led South-Vietnamese invasion of his country. He finally outlived the overthrow of Pol Pot's regime.

The Vietnamese, who had installed Khmer Rouge Hun Sen as Prime Minister in Phnom Penh in 1985 - not any more communist but still in power today – withdrew in 1989, paving the way for Sihanouk's triumphal restoration, still as a King, but now only a revered figurehead, like his Thai neighbour, King Bhumibol. The Cold War was over, the Soviet Union disbanded who had been for decades Hanoi's main backer, and the Vietnamese were now on their own. He gave up the throne in 2004 to one of his sons, Norodom Sihamoni, keeping the title of King Father and spending most of his time in Peking, nursing his many illnesses – and frustrations – but still publishing his traditional ‘Bulletin’. Still in power today, Hun Sen is another survivor “a la Sihanouk” while childless Sihamoni might well be Cambodia's last sovereign.

Sihanouk was at the same time a Florentine Prince. He entertained his guests in sometimes wild parties, and gourmet dinners. A lover of foie gras and champagne, he served me these delicacies one morning in his suite in Hotel Crillon in Paris. Going further than patronage of the arts, he became an actor, a film director, wrote songs and played the saxophone. He put his country on the twentieth century's map. He toured villages in filmed and well organised trips where farmers lay down flat on the ground as a sign of veneration for this semi God. Courtiers then duly took back his gifts, which were again presented to the next village.

He knew how to play one country off against another, accepting Peking's support while remaining anti-communist, allowing Hanoi to open its Ho Chi Minh Trail through Cambodia and keeping quiet about the massive bombings of Washington's “Secret War”. It was, for him, the only way to protect his Kingdom's fragile neutrality. He was a tactician more than a strategist. But had the leader of such a small country any other option?

At home, he also liked to play one clique off against the other, until he was outplayed, and ousted in 1970. Only to find himself supporting – as a last hope—the Khmer Rouge he had ferociously hunted down and executed, as the only way to save his country from oblivion. The greatest, and most unforgivable of Henry Kissinger's “a la Metternich” strategies was to have made of these few hundred ragged doctrinaires, on the run and bathed in the Cultural Revolution, a force which, having entered Phnom Penh on April 17 1975, butchered around two million Khmer out of a population of seven.

Born in an A Thousand and One Nights' kingdom, when colonial powers still ruled what was yet to become the Third World, which traversed on his royal elephant, he died abroad, in the capital of the new ambitious superpower whose only rival is now the United States. Cambodia, still poor, has meanwhile entered the globalised world and is selling its few resources to the highest bidder, while filling the bank accounts of a greedier and corrupt leadership. Sihanouk’s old-style corruption was only a drop in the ocean compared to today's greed.

This is also the way one should look at “Samdech” life. A trendy monarch like many others when he was young, he became a modern leader in a world of change where only the smartest could survive and dictatorships – often military—prevailed. With hardly any trump cards in his hand, he tried as long as he could to protect his beloved country and to evade the many elephants fighting in his china shop. Anti-communist, he found his only support in Red China – including during the Cultural Revolution – while the France he adored let him down shamelessly only four years after General De Gaulle's flamboyant 1966 trip to Phnom Penh, where, in his famous speech in the National Stadium, he lauded Cambodia for its independent policy between East and West. His only asylum was then Peking and his last lifebuoy the Khmer Rouge whom he loathed, and who hated him.

Both wanted the Americans out, him to rebuild his dream kingdom, them to destroy the old world and build their new state on the bones of an “old society” smashed by ethnocide. A marriage of convenience in which Prince Sihanouk lost a good part of his image. I feel, as a foreign correspondent in the field at the time, that many analysts and historians have been far too critical of his choices. But which other route could he have taken? Surrender or a retreat into oblivion was, for him, out of the question. So, obsessed by his country's independence and by his place in history, he rode a tiger which took him straight to hell. And back.

For this he paid a very heavy price, even supporting those who had murdered many members of his own family, to build up international support against the Vietnamese occupation of his country. But it is too easy for armchair analysts, in the cosyness of their far away study, to deliver a death sentence to the historical reputation of a man who did what he thought was the only, the final thing to do. Underestimating, maybe, what he thought was the lesser of many evils and the high cost of his choices, through idealism, weakness, pride sometimes, and through trial by error. The grief felt by most Cambodians after his death is the living evidence that, for them, he remains the King Father, more loved than feared, and a memorial to the good old days. If they ever were!

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Flickr/Taekwonweirdo.The King, the King Father, and the Queen Mother

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