In February, King Norodom Sihanouk, who was to announce his retirement earlier this month, set in motion the transfer of all his personal archives from the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh and his residences in Beijing and Pyongyang, North Korea, to two international institutions.
His written documents now are being sent to the Ecole francaise d’Extreme-Orient (EFEO) in Paris, and his audiovisual archives to Monash University in Melbourne.
“It would be impossible for me to have them kept in Cambodia for the sake of Cambodia’s history since the country will always be prone to changes in political and ideological systems,” the retired King wrote in a fax posted to his Web site on Feb 19. “Each time the system changes, the Khmer monarchy and especially Norodom Sihanouk lose a great deal of possessions of historical importance.”
After the 1970 coup that ousted Norodom Sihanouk from power and led to the establishment of a republic, the Lon Nol administration deliberately destroyed a large number of documents pertaining to the monarchy, said Alain Daniel, who served as Norodom Sihanouk’s private secretary in the late 1960s.
This is why Norodom Sihanouk sought international research institutions with excellent reputations, and located in politically stable countries, Daniel said.
For his written archives, he chose the EFEO, a French government organization that has been involved in the restoration of Angkor monuments and in the study of Khmer language and culture for more than a century.
For his audiovisual archives, including his films and songs, Norodom Sihanouk picked Monash University, which is known for its extensive research and teaching programs on Southeast Asia.
Norodom Sihanouk decided to dispose of all his documents this year because, he wrote in his Web site on Aug 21, “At my death, I don’t want this important matter of the legacy of my ‘treasures’ to have been left unresolved.”
In addition, his Beijing residence belongs to China, and will be turned over to the Chinese government on his death, Norodom Sihanouk said on Feb 19. It was his main residence during the 1970s and 1980s, except for the Khmer Rouge years, which he spent virtually imprisoned in the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh.
Daniel has been sorting Norodom Sihanouk’s archives along with Julio Jeldres, Norodom Sihanouk’s official biographer, and Olivier de Bernon, an EFEO researcher working in Cambodia since 1990. They started in Beijing where the material from Norodom Sihanouk’s Pyongyang residence had also been brought, leaving documents kept at the Royal Palace to Daniel who completed the task on Oct 14.
With the exception of a few earlier documents, the archives date from 1970 until today, said Jeldres. The material covers topics such as relations with China, the former Soviet Union and Vietnam; the negotiations that led to the Paris Agreement in 1991, the founding of Funcinpec and Untac’s activities prior to the 1993 national elections, he said.
“Above all, the archives will document a period of Cambodia’s contemporary history which, until now, has remained locked away in caves in Beijing and Pyongyang,” said Jeldres. “The period 1970-1975 has not been well explored by Cambodia scholars and there are many misunderstandings of what really happened.”
During that period, Norodom Sihanouk was trying to build resistance against the Lon Nol regime by cooperating with Cambodian communist forces—the future Khmer Rouge—he had previously fought, and seeking international support. “In these archives, for instance, there is an almost complete collection of the telegrams, in French, sent by [Khmer Rouge leaders] Khieu Samphan and Ieng Sary to His Majesty,” Jeldres said.
“There are very interesting reports of Cambodian ambassadors Chea San in Moscow, Huot Sambath in Belgrade, Toch Kham Doeun in Cuba, Ok Sakun in Paris, Chan Youran in Senegal and Isoup Ganthy in Albania and later Sweden; of meetings of the politburo of the FUNK (movement against the Lon Nol regime launched by Norodom Sihanouk in 1970); correspondence between Samdech Penn Nouth (a member of his government in exile) and His Majesty,” he said.
The archives also contain press clippings on Cambodia that Norodom Sihanouk saved over the years, and the books he received, said de Bernon. There also are menus of some of his official dinners, he said. These may captivate people in years to come, as the 17th century menus of French King Louis XIV fascinate people today, de Bernon said.
“Who knows what will interest historians 50 or 100 years from now? After all, these are the archives of someone who has been on a first name basis with history,” de Bernon said.
Norodom Sihanouk has put no restriction on his archives, said Daniel. “People who donate their archives have the right to bar their use for as long as they wish. The retired King chose not to use this right,” he said.
The EFEO will make Norodom Sihanouk’s documents available to researchers and historians as soon as they have been archived, which should be around 2006, de Bernon said.
The main collection will be kept at the EFEO in Paris. Some of the documents and a full series of the monthly bulletins will be sent to Monash University in addition to Norodom Sihanouk’s films and scripts, he said.
In Melbourne, “once examined, inventoried and assessed for conservation, this invaluable archive will be housed as a special collection as part of the Monash Library’s Asian Studies Research Collection, and made available to researchers under controlled conditions,” said Jill Wilson, director of information resources for the Monash University Library.
The decision of entrusting his archives to international organizations may reflect Norodom Sihanouk’s concern with the way Cambodians will portray him after his death.
In a letter to Jeldres published on March 14 at his Web site, he wrote, “Monarchy has a rather uncertain, if not gloomy, future. And the (political) regimes that will follow will never be pro-Sihanouk. They will try to systematically blacken me.”
Norodom Sihanouk wants to make available to historians all the elements that will enable them to objectively review his actions, Daniel said. “I believe that he is putting his trust in the historians and researchers of the future,” he said.