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The remarkable odyssey of Norodom Sihanouk, the great survivor

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16 October 2012 12:33

The death of Norodom Sihanouk, the 'King Father' of Cambodia, in Beijing at the age of almost 90, brings to an end one of the most remarkable lives among the Asian leaders who emerged after the Second World War.

Placed on the throne by the French in 1941 at the age of 19, Sihanouk initially served the colonial power's purpose as a symbolic rallying point in the difficult wartime years. But following the end of the war he slowly and steadily matured politically to become the spearhead of Cambodia's determination to gain independence from France. When this was achieved in 1953 he had every reason to claim this was due to his leadership.

In the years that followed independence, Sihanouk continued to demonstrate remarkable political skills, at least until the mid-1960s. He abdicated in 1955 to better place himself at the centre of political life; formed the Sangkum Reastr Niyum (People's Socialist Community) as a political movement that largely banished overt party squabbling from the country; and charted a course in international affairs that, for a period, enabled Cambodia to receive aid from all sides of the international ideological divide. He was tireless in his efforts to modernise Cambodia, though the results often fell far short of what he claimed had been achieved.

Cambodia's tragedy, and Sihanouk's within it, was the changed set of circumstances that emerged in the 1960s. He had always believed that China would be the ultimate guarantor of Cambodia's and his own survival, but this expectation was of little importance as the Vietnam War grew in intensity.

While Sihanouk feared the Vietnamese communists as his country's ultimate threat, he chose in the mid-1960s to appease them by permitting the passage of Chinese arms across his country to the Vietnamese forces and to allow those forces to use Cambodian territory as sanctuaries.

Having broken off diplomatic relations with the United States in 1965 he nonetheless allowed right-wing politicians within Cambodia to gain the upper hand in domestic politics. Clearly tiring of his years of hectic activity and dispirited by the evidence that he no longer could manipulate events as had once been the case, he embarked on an intense period of producing feature-length films. He wrote the scripts, composed the incidental music, directed and, on occasion, acted in these films which, despite orchestrated acclaim in Cambodia, were amateurish. His preoccupation with these films coincided with a series of rural revolts that came to be linked to Cambodia's clandestine communist party. Sihanouk was deeply offended by this challenge and ordered its suppression in the fiercest fashion; he even boasted of ordering the summary execution of two hundred rebels in 1968.

Sihanouk's overthrow in March 1970 by men who had been his closest associates was the signal for the country's descent into civil war and ultimately the military triumph of Cambodia's communists, the Khmer Rouge. Although there is no doubt that a number of American agencies were aware of the plotting that led to the coup that toppled Sihanouk, to described the event as CIA-backed is misleading and represents a failure to recognise the extent to which Sihanouk had lost the support of his formerly closest allies. It was this event that led to Sihanouk's polarising decision to link his name to the front organisation dominated by the communists which now fought against the government in Phnom Penh.

There is no doubt he made this decision in part because of urging from Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai that he should do so, and there is no reason to think he had an inkling of the sort of regime that the Cambodian communists led by Pol Pot would ultimately introduce. Nevertheless, his decision showed little awareness of the dangers that could accompany a communist victory. Always convinced of his own indispensability, he probably thought that there was a role that he could play in the future. And beyond question he thirsted for revenge against those who had deposed him. 

After the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh in April 1975 Sihanouk was ready to speak on their behalf when he toured eastern Europe after a short visit to Cambodia in September. But when he returned to Cambodia at the end of the year he found that he had no role to play in Pol Pot's regime. For the duration of the Khmer Rouge period, until the Vietnamese invasion that chased the Cambodian communists from Phnom Penh in January 1979, Sihanouk lived under house arrest.

Fleeing to Beijing just ahead of the invading Vietnamese, Sihanouk went to the United Nations to denounce the invasion and then seized the opportunity to escape from Khmer Rouge control. Nevertheless, and while mostly resident in Beijing, he became head of the Coalition of Democratic Kampuchea in which the Khmer Rouge were the most important military element seeking to oust the Vietnamese from Cambodia.

Cambodia's history during the 1980s was marked by both political and moral ambiguity, with Sihanouk at times withdrawing from involvement in events and at other times seeking to direct them.

Ultimately, and as China increased its pressure on Vietnam to withdraw its forces from Cambodia, Sihanouk played an important role in the 1991 settlement that led to the institution of the United National Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) and the UN-supervised elections of 1993. Following those elections Sihanouk was restored to his country's throne in September 1993.

Although it was apparent Sihanouk thought he could, once again, play an important role in Cambodia's politics, it became clear that this was not the case, particularly after 1997 as Hun Sen increasingly dominated Cambodia's domestic politics. As clashes between Sihanouk and Hun Sen became more public Sihanouk decided in 2004 to abdicate, partly out of frustration and partly to preserve the monarchy which he feared might be eliminated if he and Hun Sen continued to be at odds. From 2004 on he spent most of his time in Beijing, frequently defending his past role and criticising those who failed to endorse his actions.

Striking a balance sheet of Sihanouk's long life is no easy task. As the distinguished British scholar Michael Leifer once said, he was better at reigning than ruling. He regarded the Cambodian people as 'his children' and felt that he alone had the right to decide what they did and in what manner.

Possessed of extraordinary energy he was, without question, responsible for many of the achievements that occurred in the period up to his overthrow in 1970. But he lacked balance in many of his judgments and while he may be seen as a victim of circumstances and events beyond his control in the late 1960s his embrace of the men who came to rule Cambodia under Pol Pot was ultimately a grievous error. But when all this is said there can be no doubt on one point: whether his actions were wise or not he wanted the best for his country. The problem is that he also wanted the best for himself. The extent to which this wish trumped his concerns for his own interests will remain an issue for debate. 

Photo UN Photo.

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