By Kevin Barrington
You read Philip Gourevitch’s piece on Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihanouk in The New Yorker.
And you just know that Mr. Gourevitch doesn’t know who he is talking about.
It is obvious he has never met King Sihanouk. In person.
’Cos Gourevitch is a bright person. And had he met Sihanouk we’d know about it.
’Cos Sihanouk tends to make an impression on people.
This is no boasty, braggy, access thing. It’s just because Sihanouk was a pretty unique act.
Just look at all the profiles:
The boy-king, pampered,
mercurial, playboy, erratic, Oriental, artistic and
all the saffron-robed exotica.
Everyone struggling to deal with the fact, to articulate in some way:
that Sihanouk was the real deal.
’Cos Sihanouk was the real deal.
“The Fantasy of King Sihanouk.” That’s what The New Yorker says.
And that is actually what Gourevitch seems totally ignorant of or oblivious to:
Fantasy. Spectacle. Art.
Sihanouk had no arms or money.
He didn’t rape his people.
He wasn’t a kleptocrat.
He worked for his supper.
A scam artist maybe. But an artist.
He hustled on behalf of Cambodia. Not always perfectly.
But let’s take the worst of what Gourevitch throws at him:
Distorting quite a few facts along the way, the big accusation is that Sihanouk is largely responsible for the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal rule.
But had he checked, Gourevitch would have easily seen that history is already robbing him of the potency of that polemic.
Julio Jeldres, Sihanouk’s biographer, tells us of Sihanouk’s expressing his concerns about
the Khmer Rouge to Chou Enlai
Sihanouk was seeking support to neuter them. But Chou Enlai had the Gang of Four to worry about.
And the Yanks were not listening.
The New Yorker piece is written as if the Americans played no role.
There is no sense that the
post-Killing Fields Khmer Rouge occupied the U.N. seat down the road. And no sense of the pressure that was put on Sihanouk
to deal with them.
Sihanouk is a lesson in a man who dealt with pressure.
He had a lot thrown at him.
Even for one born a God-King.
A collision of centuries,
He dealt with them all.
Mao to Mitterand,
Tito to Nehru,
Ceaucescu to Ho Chi Minh, Nixon to de Gaulle.
With Cambodia’s well-being as his aim, all Sihanouk had at his diplomatic disposal was spectacle.
The Fantasy of King Sihanouk.
Think Jagger at Altamont singing “Sympathy For The Devil.” Then think amateur hour.
’Cos that’s what it was compared to this ’89 year King’s never-ending tour.
And despite being born to absolutism. And the country’s history of it. And the region’s propensity for it.
Sihanouk had a real appreciation of the artifice of what we now call human rights.
Here’s a senior Red Cross Official who had dealings with him. With the Khmer Rouge’s Ieng Thirith.
With Hun Sen.
“The only one who has listened and then delivered in terms of Geneva Conventions and all that jazz, was him,” the Red Cross official said,
speaking of Sihanouk.
“With him we did at least release all political prisoners that were [known to be…] in jail when the SNC took over,” he added, referring to the Supreme National Council, the reconciliation grouping of Cambodia’s warring factions pending the outcome of U.N.-brokered elections.
And yet Gourevitch laughs at Sihanouk’s belief that
history had no place for
dishonesty and lies.
“It seems impossible that Sihanouk really believed that,” Gourevitch wrote at the end of his New Yorker piece.
But it’s entirely possible.
’Cos Sihanouk knows history will be kind to him.
He’ll get kudos for the hours
telling the peasants what
Mao or Tito
had just said to him.
Way out there.
Where he was the only thing that came from the sky that
didn’t bring death.
A one man shock and awe band. Helicopter largesse
in a water buffalo world.
Kevin Barrington is a journalist and writer based in Dublin, Ireland. He was the Agence France-Presse bureau chief in Phnom Penh in the early 1990s.