Norodom Sihanouk—The End of an Era

King Father Norodom Sihanouk, the flamboyant, tireless monarch who led Cambodia to independence in 1953, watched it descend into genocide and civil war, and reigned once more as the country struggled to its feet, died Monday in Beijing.

The monarch who peacefully won Cambodia’s independence from France, rallied political factions in the 1980s to achieve peace against all odds and, when crowned for a second time, mediated the country’s conflicts out of crisis in the 1990s, Norodom Sihanouk will be remembered as one of the foremost Southeast Asian leaders of the past 60 years.

“His Majesty the King Father…was truly the father of his country and the legendary figure we meet only once in our lifetimes,” Gordon Longmuir, a former Canadian ambassador to Cambodia, wrote in a message on Monday.

“One of the indisputably great figures of the 20th century, and a champion of his people always, His Majesty will be deeply mourned and greatly honored by all Cambodians and the many friends of the Kingdom abroad.”

For people throughout the world, the former King will remain to this day the face of Cambodia, his legendary smile one of the country’s best-known images.

Twice forced into exile and twice proclaimed King, Norodom Sihanouk never failed to be larger than life. His ebullient personality and leadership style were the perfect complement to his dramatic life, and he played up the drama in books with brash titles such as “My War With the CIA” and “Prisoner of the Khmer Rouge.”

In the 1980s, he was the leader that Cold War superpowers trusted and believed could bring an end to decades of civil war in the country. And for Cambodians in the early 1990s, Norodom Sihanouk became the symbol of an era that had known peace before the turmoil of the early 1970s, the Khmer Rouge nightmare.

Norodom Sihanouk once called himself the country’s “natural ruler.” He often referred to his people as “my children” in French and “grandchildren” in Khmer. And biographers say he commonly identified himself as the embodiment of Cambodia. The retired King’s admirers say that attitude spurred him to work tirelessly for the country’s interests, his critics that he was hugely intolerant of criticism. But even his detractors would admit that Norodom Sihanouk was a unique and mercurial, character—charming, self-dramatizing, unpredictable, sometimes self-indulgent. He mixed shrewd diplomatic skills with a disarming frankness that never failed to make a strong impression on those who met him.

“His deep love for the Cambodian people—not shared throughout history by any other Cambodian ruler that I know of—was sincere and moving,” historian David Chandler said on Monday. “His impatience with dissent and his narcissism are also important ingredients of his behavior. Interestingly, unlike other Cambodian rulers before and since, he did not get rich during his years in power.”

Norodom Sihanouk was “a chief of state unlike I had ever met,” wrote New York Times reporter Henry Kamm in his 1998 book, “Cambodia: Report From A Stricken Land.”

“He blurted out with disregard for conventional hypocrisy truths that statesmen are supposed to keep to themselves…. Moreover, he dwelt on his country’s weakness rather than praising pretended strength. He laughed at his own remarks more uproariously than his audience.”

This acute awareness of his country’s fragility in the face of stronger neighbors and self-centered superpowers may give a clue as to how the late King Father kept Cambodia out of the war in neighboring Vietnam for many years, though ultimately the country was drawn into the conflagration in the final years of his reign, which was ended by a military coup in 1970.

“In a world without pity, the survival of a country as small as Cambodia depends on your god and my Buddha,” Norodom Sihanouk told Mr. Kamm, explaining why he hewed to a neutralist policy as neighboring Vietnam was engulfed in flames.

Born on October 31, 1922, Norodom Sihanouk admitted to being a mostly solitary child during his education in a French primary school in Phnom Penh and a French high school in Ho Chi Minh City. He was still a quiet boy of 18 when he was selected as King, and he reportedly wept at the thought of ruling.

Chosen by the French administration for what they took as docility, he would end up playing a major role in ending French Indochina.

“The French chose me because they thought I was a little lamb,” Norodom Sihanouk once wrote. “Later they were surprised to discover that I was a tiger.”

On the death of King Monivong in 1941, Cambodia’s French administrator Admiral Decoux recommended the Cambodian prince, who was studying at a Ho Chi Minh City high school, as the King’s successor.

Numerous French documents of that era remain sealed today but, according to historians, the main reason for selecting Prince Sihanouk was that the prince seemed more malleable and less prone to independent action than other candidates.

France would have ample ground to regret that decision when the young King Sihanouk lobbied world press and leaders to force the French government’s hand and give the country independence in 1953.

The official explanation when he was selected would be that, as a descendent of both royal families—Norodom on his father’s side and Sisowath on his mother’s—choosing Prince Sihanouk would put an end to squabbles between the two competing families. So in October 1941, as war raged in Europe and Cambodia was under Japanese military control through a French administration loyal to Axis powers Germany and Japan, King Sihanouk acceded to the throne.

Thus began the reign of a man that Time magazine in 1999 called one of the most influential Asian leaders of the 20th century, a fascinating ruler and consummate politician whose actions—at times brilliant and often controversial—will be debated by historians and political analysts for decades to come.

Yet the King that Norodom Sihanouk was to become took time to emerge.

When France put him on the throne, nothing had prepared the young prince for this role, writes Mr. Chandler, the historian.

At first kept under strict control by the French, Norodom Sihanouk admitted that, prior to 1952, he was more concerned with female conquests than affairs of state. By the time he was 24 he would have six children; by 1954, he would have 13 children to five different women.

But he was also learning his trade as the nation’s leader, as he demonstrated after the adoption of Cambodia’s 1947 constitution and the 1951 national election.

In January 1953, King Sihanouk asked the National Assembly for special powers, saying that the country was in danger. Refused, he had troops surround the National Assembly building, dissolved the assembly, had about 10 politicians jailed and, holding full powers, concentrated on his “Royal Crusade for Independence” to fulfill the promise he had made to the country to gain Cambodia’s independence within three years.

“[Norodom] Sihanouk’s own sense of confidence and his unshakeable belief that he knew what was best for Cambodia was to be the hallmarks of his rule until his hold on Cambodian politics began to slip in the late 1960s,” historian Milton Osborne writes.

Pursuing his promise, he left for France in February 1953. Once there, he petitioned the French government for independence. But his plea was not taken seriously. After several high-level meetings including a luncheon with French President Vincent Auriol, he was finally told by the French commissioner for associated countries, Jean Letourneau, that his request was “inopportune.”

Rebuffed, he took to the world stage, traveling to the U.S., Canada and Japan to give interviews to muster support for independence. He was interviewed by the Canadian television network CBC in Montreal; The New York Times; and received editorial support in The Washington Post.

The French, wearied from waging a losing battle in their war with Vietnamese nationalists next door, agreed to talks for a peaceful transition to independence in Cambodia. On November 9, 1953, Norodom Sihanouk was able to declare independence for his country. Indochina dissolved the following year.

The young King Sihanouk, and now Father of Independence, had his own vision for Cambodia and was not satisfied to be a constitutional monarch. In 1955, he took the bold step of stepping down as King and, while his father acceded to the throne in his stead, entered the political arena by founding the political party Sangkum Reastr Niyum, which would hold power until 1970.

During those 15 years in power, Norodom Sihanouk embarked on an ambitious program that turned Phnom Penh into one of the most dynamic capitals in the region.

The period was the beginning of what many older Cambodians recall as a golden age. In the post-independence years, education blossomed with the construction of thousands of elementary schools. More than 1 million students received primary education, and nine universities were built for an estimated 10,000 students. New hospitals and clinics were constructed. Cambodia’s brilliant post-independence architects, such as Vann Molyvann, developed a distinctive style of architecture whose work still inspires to this day.

In 1961, war broke out between North and South Vietnam, and Norodom Sihanouk began a tightrope walk that kept Cambodia neutral for nine years.

“His most positive contribution to Cambodian history, I think, was to keep Cambodia out of the Vietnam War for as long as he did,” Mr. Chandler said.

As Sihanouk sought foreign support for his neutralist position, he became a leader within the Non-Aligned Movement of countries such as India, Egypt and Indonesia, which refused to take sides in the Cold War. And while Norodom Sihanouk became a hero of the international left, he also suppressed the growth of left-wing parties in his own country through surveillance and arrest.

At the same time, the 1960s were the heyday of the highlife for Phnom Penh’s elite, crowned by Norodom Sihanouk’s flamboyance.

Playing saxophone and clarinet, Prince Sihanouk would lead a band mostly composed of his fellow princes, which played into the early hours of the morning with a mix of 1930s swing, French pop and the prince’s own songs. Diplomats would sip vintage champagne and dance all night at the Royal Palace soirees, historian Mr. Osborne recalled.

Yet the Koh Santepheap, or “oasis of peace” as Cambodia was known during those years, also contained the seeds of the prince’s downfall. His unspoken policy of vanquishing his political opponents bred resentment.

After arrests of left-wing intellectuals and repression of their publications, leftists fled into the jungle, later to re-emerge as the deadly Khmer Rouge. Meanwhile, the universities produced well-educated graduates who had few job opportunities and who were angered by the corruption in the capital.

Neither backing the U.S. nor the Eastern bloc entirely, his political allegiance led some diplomats and commentators to view him as unreliable, while others saw his unpredictability as a strategy in itself.

“The key to understanding Sihanouk,” wrote Bernard Krisher, publisher of The Cambodia Daily and longtime friend of Norodom Sihanouk, “is that when you are the leader of a small and defenseless country in need of foreign aid, and when competing big powers will help only at the price of your joining their camp, then the only meaningful strategy is to be unpredictable—to play one side against the other and keep everybody guessing. It was a delicate art and Sihanouk was a master.”

But his high-stakes balancing act was not to last.

In 1970, as he was on a trip abroad, Norodom Sihanouk was ousted by the pro-U.S. Lon Nol government.

Told that he could stay in France as long as he remained out of politics and receiving a lukewarm reception in the U.S., he accepted China’s invitation to reside in Beijing and head the opposition movement to the Lon Nol regime that consisted of Khmer Rouge forces backed at the time by North Vietnam. In that capacity, Norodom Sihanouk launched on March 24, 1970, from Beijing a radio appeal to Cambodians to join the “maquis” guerrillas to fight the Lon Nol government and restore him to power.

By leading the movement, he had formed a strategic alliance with the Khmer Rouge insurgents who pledged to support him. Nonetheless, in 1973, he told a New York Times reporter of his fear that when the Khmer Rouge no longer needed him they would “spit him out.” Sure enough, soon after taking power in 1975, the Khmer Rouge imprisoned Norodom Sihanouk, Princess Monineath and Prince Norodom Sihamoni in his own palace in Phnom Penh. He was often in fear of execution during his stay in what he called his “gilded prison.” The Khmer Rouge eventually killed many members of his family who were still in Cambodia.

Just ahead of Vietnamese forces who toppled Pol Pot in January 1979, Norodom Sihanouk, Princess Monineath and Prince Sihamoni were put on a plane bound for Beijing.

The 1980s saw a protracted civil war between a tenuous alliance composed of Khmer Rouge, royalist and republican forces based on the Thai border and the Hanoi-backed government in Phnom Penh. But by 1987, as Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev was introducing policy that would lead to the end of the Cold War, Norodom Sihanouk began peace talks with Prime Minister Hun Sen.

As Cambodia’s most prominent and respected figures, Norodom Sihanouk was at the center of negotiations with the various factions to finally end the Cambodian conflict—one of the last hangovers from the Cold War. Reconciliation led to the Paris Peace Agreement in 1991, and Norodom Sihanouk returned from exile that year to Phnom Penh where he was greeted with a hero’s return. He rode together with Mr. Hun Sen in an open top limousine from Pochentong Airport to the Royal Palace.

The next year, the $2 billion U.N. Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) began its operation to bring peace, stability and democratic elections to the war-weary country. Though it failed to disarm the Khmer Rouge, UNTAC did usher in elections, which were won by the royalist Funcinpec party, chaired by Norodom Sihanouk’s son Prince Norodom Ranariddh.

During the 1993 elections, Norodom Sihanouk was determined to remain neutral. But he soon became associated with the Funcinpec party he had previously founded, and turned into the royalist party’s biggest asset, bringing it to victory.

After the defeated CPP threatened a return to civil war, Norodom Sihanouk took charge. Always pragmatic with a profound understanding of his people and politics, Norodom Sihanouk sealed a compromise to the relief of the U.N. and the world’s superpowers: The CPP and Funcinpec would share power with Prince Ranariddh acting as first prime minister and Mr. Hun Sen as second prime minister. This arranged marriage would end in armed combat in the streets of Phnom Penh in 1997.

In September 1993, 38 years after leaving the throne, Norodom Sihanouk was crowned King yet again. The new post-UNTAC Constitution assigned him ceremonial powers, specifying that he was to reign, but not rule.

Until his retirement in 2004, Norodom Sihanouk continued to appeal to the international community to support the country’s development. He also kept mediating conflicts among Cambodia’s various parties.

In 1993, he tried to broker an agreement between the new Cambodian government and the Khmer Rouge who had resumed fighting shortly after signing the Paris Peace Agreement and were controlling western portions of the country.  He even suggested offering “acceptable” Khmer Rouge leaders government positions if they surrendered and gave up control over zones they were occupying. That offer, however, did not extend to Pol Pot, Ieng Sary, Nuon Chea or Ta Mok. As observers mentioned, Norodom Sihanouk believed that Khmer Rouge with government positions would be easier to control.

In a March 1994 message, he suggested a cease-fire and peace talks between government and Khmer Rouge leaders. Otherwise, the country could be in “mortal danger” of remaining in a state of perpetual war, he said. Peace talks did take place in June 1994 but failed to end the hostilities. On January 18, 1995, King Sihanouk made another appeal for national reconciliation and suggested to extend the government’s amnesty policy to Khmer Rouge defectors. The government announced 10 days later that it endorsed his suggestion except in the case of Pol Pot and Ta Mok, who would have to leave the country. This second attempt also failed.

With heavy fighting depleting the Cambodian army, the government contemplated conscription, a measure for which King Sihanouk strongly disapproved. Obligatory military service would cause social injustice because, he wrote in February 1996, “children from rich and powerful families would always find a way to escape [it].”

That same year, he spoke in favor of a Khmer Rouge war crimes tribunal, describing Pol Pot as a monster.

Regarding his granting of amnesty to Khmer Rouge leader Ieng Sary in September 1996, the late King explained that, even though he did not agree with it, he had to comply with the request of the government and the majority of the National Assembly who approved the move.

Shortly after the amnesty for Ieng Sary, he announced his intention of granting pardon to the largest possible number of prisoners on the occasion of his 74th birthday, saying that since he had given a free pass to a Khmer Rouge leader whose regime had caused the death of nearly 2 million people, he had to pardon those who had committed far less serious crimes.

It was only in December 1998 that the last Khmer Rouge forces would surrender and war in the country would finally end.

In 1999, Norodom Sihanouk criticized the Cambodian government for rejecting the concept of a joint war crimes tribunal dominated by U.N.-appointed judges and prosecutors which, he said, would not infringe on the country’s sovereignty as the government claimed.

The late King’s comments would often put him at odds with Mr. Hun Sen and, prior to his retirement, this would lead to him toning down his comments for a few weeks or months for the sake of good relations with the prime minister. Norodom Sihanouk’s old friend Ruom Rith, however, would often take over and continue to publicly voice criticism of the government.

In 2004, Norodom Sihanouk stepped down, which paved the way for his chosen heir and son, King Norodom Sihamoni, to be crowned King.

The King Father’s death marks the end of an era for Cambodia. An era that saw the country buffeted by the powerful forces of colonialism, the Cold War, civil war and genocide. It was an era unique in the scope and scale of the brutality and devastation suffered by a small country and its people.

In 1985, the French intellectual, Helene Cixous, wrote a play about Norodom Sihanouk that portrayed him as a tragic hero with the stature of a king in a William Shakespeare play. Upon seeing it, the King Father remarked that it was not he that should be portrayed as a tragic hero; it was all of Cambodia.

(Additional reporting by Rick Sine)

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