Death of Norodom Sihanouk: A man who would be king, prince, PM and king-father

By J Brooks Spector 15 October 2012

Norodom Sihanouk, who died Monday at 89, was on the world stage since World War II. Through invasions, civil war, intense aerial bombardments and the depredations of a genocidal regime that killed millions, other than the ancient monuments at Angkor Wat Sihanouk was Cambodia’s one constant through it all. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

Sihanouk, who abdicated as Cambodia’s king in 2004 in favour of his son, Norodom Sihamoni, first came to the Cambodian throne in 1941. At that time, Cambodia was still part of French Indo-China (linked together with Laos, Tonkin, Cochin China and Annam), but effectively occupied by Imperial Japan after France’s defeat by Germany in 1940.

Sihanouk led his country to its independence in 1953, carefully balancing his international relationships among its neighbours and regionally dominant powers like China and the US for half a century. He achieved prominence for Cambodia as a neutral nation in the emerging non-aligned movement in a decolonizing, post-World War II world. For years, Sihanouk himself was a constant on the international stage – his pronouncements and diplomatic wiles were the stuff of international headlines. For decades as well, until the Khmer Rouge revolution overwhelmed his traditional approach to rule, Sihanouk pursued a complicated domestic balancing act in an effort to balance and counterbalance the opposing forces within the country.

Attempting to sum up his life, The New York Times said of Sihanouk, “Criticised throughout his life for these dramatic shifts in allegiances, King Sihanouk said he followed only one course in politics: ‘the defence of the independence, the territorial integrity and the dignity of my country and my people.’ In fact, he skilfully manipulated the great powers, usually with the support of China, to ensure his survival as well as his country’s independence. His worst nightmare, he said in an interview, was to be pushed out of his country’s political life into a quiet retirement, like Vietnam’s last emperor, Bao Dai, who died in obscurity in Paris in 1997.”

Born in 1922, Sihanouk was the eldest son of King Norodom Suramarit and Queen Sisowath Kossamak. He was educated in the best French schools in Saigon and Paris. When the Vichy French government named him king in 1941, bypassing his father, their hope was that the 18-year-old king could be manipulated by the French colonial rulers who were themselves under the thumb of the Japanese military. His father had previously judged him too slight a personality to be ready for the job, given his love of French cuisine, amateur filmmaking, playing the saxophone – and, of course, the ladies.

“In those early years,” The New York Times observed, “King Sihanouk seemed uninterested in government. He filled his days pursuing women and, in the tradition of his forebears, had several consorts who eventually bore him at least 13 children. But in March 1945, as they were losing the war, the Japanese sought to oust the French in Cambodia. King Sihanouk stepped forward on the side of Japan and declared Cambodia the new independent state of Kampuchea. With Japan’s defeat, King Sihanouk welcomed back the French, largely ignoring the growing number of Cambodians who thought their country should remain independent.”

Sihanouk acknowledged that he did not vigorously push for Cambodian independence from the French again until 1951, this time using it as a tool to fend off challenges from more democratic and Communist movements, both of which were pushing for an end to colonial rule, but from different sides of the political spectrum. Taking advantage of growing French weakness as a result of Communist victories in the fighting in Vietnam, King Sihanouk then persuaded the French to grant Cambodian independence in 1953, in advance of the 1954 Geneva peace conference that had produced a Vietnam divided into Northern and Southern regimes.

Then, in yet another reversal of an earlier stance, Sihanouk announced he would abandon his throne to run in Cambodia’s first independent elections. With a mix of repression, vote-rigging and a reliance on the votes from peasants who still saw him as some kind of god-king, Sihanouk’s party won the elections and he commenced on building a new, more sophisticated Cambodia – at least in the capital. Grinding poverty in rural Cambodia continued without much evident let-up.

Compared to Vietnam, with its never-ending conflict, and Thailand, with its disorienting and distorting rush towards economic development and a thoroughgoing militarism, Cambodia seemed a kind of oasis to many. Now a prince, Sihanouk was presided over his citizens almost as if they were all his children. Despite that public impression, he also imprisoned – and sometimes executed – political opponents or drove them into exile, including Saloth Sar, the man later known as Pol Pot, infamous leader of the Khmer Rouge and one of the cruellest men on the planet.

Throughout his long place in the sun, even in his most difficult moments, Sihanouk never surrendered on his well-known flamboyance or his obvious taste for the finer things of life. As The New York Times observed, “As a young ruler and the scion of one of Asia’s oldest royal houses, he gained a well-deserved reputation as a playboy, a gourmand and an amateur filmmaker. In his years in exile with his wife, Queen Monique, he kept his Cambodian movement alive by lavishly entertaining diplomats and foreign officials with Champagne breakfasts and elaborate French meals.”

Upon learning of his passing, Sihanouk’s assistant and relative, Prince Sisowath Thomico said, “His death was a great loss to Cambodia. King Sihanouk did not belong to his family, he belonged to Cambodia and to history.” And he added, “This is not just mourning by the royal family but for all Cambodians. He is the father of the nation.” 

In contrast to Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the ruler who had revived a traditional, ritualistic monarchy in the years following World War II, Sihanouk personalized his autocratic leadership much in the style of post-colonial leaders such as Indonesia’s Sukarno.

Following Cambodia’s independence, the international press – and not infrequently some bemused, perplexed or exasperated diplomats and world figures – tried to keep up with his intricate, shifting changes of political alignment. This included his shift away from the West towards China in the 1960s, the suppression of the Khmer Rouge in the 1960s, and then an alliance with them in the 1970s and ’80s. Perhaps the most generous judgment on Sihanouk’s life and career was that he saw himself as the country’s most important nationalist and a man who believed he was the very personification of his country. As Sihanouk himself had said, “I am Sihanouk and all Cambodians are my children.” 

But there are other views. “There can be no doubt that Sihanouk’s actions and his decisions contributed to the political malaise that finally tore Cambodia apart,” historian Milton Osborne wrote in a 1994 biography of the king.

As a leader, the judgment must be that Sihanouk struggled, and often failed, to shelter his small, weak, impoverished country from the spreading Armageddon of the Vietnam War, and the constant pressures coming from his larger, more powerful neighbours and Cold War superpowers. His feeling that communist victories in the region had become inevitable made him believe he had to work with whatever regimes emerged out of the fighting – and these difficult realities made him see survival as the ultimate goal for both Sihanouk personally and Cambodia.

When a US-backed coup installed General Lon Nol as Cambodia’s newest leader in 1970, Sihanouk – increasingly alienated from the US by its bombing raids on Vietnamese communist guerrillas inside Cambodia and troop incursions into the region known as the Parrot’s Beak – went into exile in Beijing. Sihanouk had earlier tolerated US bombing against the Viet Cong along the frontier, just as he had tacitly also accepted the Viet Cong and North Vietnam’s use of Cambodian territory near the border and a Cambodian port for resupply, but the coup tipped the scales.

This US secret bombing of Cambodia, and then the incursions by ground forces in 1970 also incited major American anti-war protests across the country, including that fatal encounter between students and Army National Guard troops at Kent State University in Ohio. Many were firmly convinced the Vietnam War had entered an even more dangerous phase under President Richard Nixon, and it seemed this was a deeply unpopular war that would never end for Americans.

Firmly convinced the US had been behind his overthrow in 1970, at the urging of his Chinese patrons Sihanouk threw his support behind the Khmer Rouge and gave that communist movement his prestige and popularity. Its eventual victory in 1975 over Lon Nol’s government brought to power the murderous Pol Pot, whose forces carried out the brutal forced evacuations and killing scenes so graphically portrayed in The Killing Fields. Sihanouk became the country’s figurehead president for a year after Pol Pot’s victory, until he was placed under house arrest, an event that appears to have driven him into a period of profound depression.

He ended up being confined to his palace for most of the four years of the regime’s murderous rule, a period when nearly 2-million people were killed. Cambodians were shot for wearing spectacles (indicating their membership in the intelligentsia or just the educated class), or worked or starved to death as the new government forcibly emptied the country’s cities and towns, sending the hapless city dwellers to work on the land with very little nourishment and only the most meagre of tools. Sihanouk eventually condemned the Khmer Rouge for these deaths – as their death toll eventually included several of Sihanouk’s own children.

When Vietnamese forces ousted the Khmer Rouge in 1979, Sihanouk headed back into exile in Beijing. He stayed outside Cambodia for 13 more years as the country coped with civil war and a desperate struggle to rebuild from the preceding chaos and devastation. Finally, in 1993, when the UN brokered a Vietnamese withdrawal, Sihanouk returned home yet again and again became its king. His health was now degenerating, however, and he announced in 2004 he abdication in favour of one of his sons, the up-until-then-little-known Norodom Sihamoni, a former ballet dancer and Cambodian representative to UNESCO. Sihanouk then became his country’s retired king or “king-father”.

As he grew older, Sihanouk would say of his life, “Lengthy longevity bears on me like an unbearable weight.” But in a life that had spanned a world war, revolutions, multiple invasions, imagination-defying horrors, and personal tragedy, amazingly, Sihanouk died quietly in a Beijing hospital bed from the complications of a heart attack at the age of 89. 

Sihanouk’s life – a timeline

Oct 31, 1922:  Prince Norodom Sihanouk is born.   

Apr 25, 1941: Colonial power France installs Sihanouk on the throne, believing he will be easily managed.

Nov 9, 1953:  France grants Cambodia independence, a victory for Sihanouk.

Mar 2, 1955:  Sihanouk abdicates to pursue a career in politics and his father Norodom Suramarit is named king.

Apr 3,  1960: Sihanouk is elected as head of state after the death of his father.

Mar 18, 1970: Sihanouk is deposed in a US-backed coup by General Lon Nol, who establishes a republic. Exiled in China, Sihanouk aligns himself with the Khmer Rouge and urges Cambodians to join in their guerrilla war against the new regime.

Apr 17, 1975: The Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, march into Phnom Penh, beginning a reign of terror that would leave up to two million people dead from starvation, overwork or execution.

Sep 9, 1975: Sihanouk returns as head of state but resigns a few months later and is placed under “palace arrest” by the hard-line communist regime.

Jan 6 1979: Sihanouk is evacuated to Beijing on the eve of the invasion by Vietnamese forces that oust the Khmer Rouge. Civil war begins, pitting the Khmer Rouge, nationalists and royalists against each other.

June  22, 1982:  From exile, Sihanouk becomes president of the anti-Vietnamese coalition government of Democratic Kampuchea, which includes his newly created FUNCINPEC party and the Khmer Rouge.

Jan  14, 1985: Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge cadre who defected, is appointed as prime minister of Cambodia’s Vietnam-installed government.

Sep 27, 1989: Vietnamese troops withdraw under international pressure.

Oct 23, 1991: Paris peace agreement is signed, giving the UN authority to supervise a ceasefire and democratic elections.

Nov 14, 1991: Sihanouk makes a triumphant return to Cambodia after nearly 13 years in exile.

May 23, 1993: UN-sponsored elections are held and the royalist FUNCINPEC party receives 47 per cent of the vote, ahead of Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party.

Sep 24, 1993: Sihanouk returns to the throne under a new constitution transforming the country into a constitutional monarchy, allows the king to reign but not rule. His son Norodom Ranariddh, is elected as first prime minister and Hun Sen is named second prime minister, under UN pressure. The following month Sihanouk makes first of many trips to Beijing for medical treatment after being diagnosed with B-cell lymphoma.

July 7, 1994: The Khmer Rouge is outlawed.

Jul 5-6, 1997: Hun Sen ousts Ranariddh in a widely condemned move that leads to deadly factional street fighting.

Apr 15, 1998: Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot dies.

Aug 10, 2001: Sihanouk promulgates a law creating a UN-backed tribunal to bring Khmer Rouge leaders to justice.

Oct 7, 2004: In a surprise announcement, Sihanouk abdicates, citing poor health and a wish to ensure a stable transition to a new monarch.

Oct 14, 2004: Sihanouk’s 51-year-old son Norodom Sihamoni, a former dancer and Cambodia’s representative to UNESCO, is named the new king.

May 2005: Sihanouk writes on his website that the cancer that began in his prostate has recurred in his stomach.

Jun 22, 2009: Sihanouk says on his website that he has been successfully treated for a third bout of cancer. In October, he says he has lived too long and wishes to die.

Oct 20, 2011: During a ceremony to mark the 20th anniversary of his return from exile, Sihanouk vows not to leave Cambodia again despite his health problems.

Jan 19,  2012: Sihanouk heads back to Beijing for medical treatment.

Oct 15, 2012: Sihanouk dies in Beijing. DM

Read more:

  • “Cambodia’s quixotic former king Sihanouk dies in Beijing,” on Reuters
  • “Norodom Sihanouk (1922-2012) – Cambodia’s enigmatic former king,” on the Straits Times
  • “Continuing unrest,” transcript of an interview with Sydney Schanberg on PBS
  • “Norodom Sihanouk, Cambodian Leader Through Shifting Allegiances, Dies at 89,” on the New York Times

Photo: Then Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk stands beside flowers given by the Chinese government during a meeting with Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo (not seen) in Beijing, October 30, 2006. Cambodia’s former King Norodom Sihanouk died of natural causes in Beijing, China, early Monday, Xinhua News Agency reported.  REUTERS/China Daily 


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