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Sihanouk: The great survivor turns 89

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31 October 2011 15:19

There surely is no greater survivor among international political figures of the past and present centuries than Norodom Sihanouk, now titled the King Father of Cambodia, who turns 89 today, or 90 by Cambodian reckoning. He returned to Phnom Penh last week after three months of medical treatment in Beijing and vowed never to leave Cambodia again.

Over more than half a century Sihanouk has been king (he has abdicated twice), prime minister and chief of state of his country. Ousted in a coup in 1970, he became the nominal head of the Khmer Rouge-dominated National United Front of Kampuchea fighting against the Khmer Republic. He was then briefly chief of state of Pol Pot's Democratic Kampuchea.

Severing his ties with the Khmer Rouge after that regime's overthrow in 1979, he finally returned to mount the Cambodian throne again in 1993 after playing a predictably complex role in the negotiations that led to the settlement of the Cambodian problem. He abdicated for the second time in 2004.

Born into the Cambodian royal family in 1922, Sihanouk never expected to become king. He was plucked from relative obscurity as a student at a colonial lycee in Saigon by the French and placed on the throne in 1941 at a time of deep crisis in their colonial possessions in Indochina. 

The French felt sure they could manipulate the shy 19 year-old and until almost the end of the Second World War the French were largely correct in their estimation. But from 1946 they found they were dealing with a different man. He proved to be, as a French general observed and Sihanouk has never ceased to quote, 'a madman of genius.'

I offered my own judgments on Sihanouk's career up to 1994 in an unauthorised biography published in 1994 (Sihanouk: Prince of Light Prince of Darkness), but on this notable occasion Sihanouk's unusually introspective judgment of himself in his memoir, Souvenirs Doux et Amers, published in 1981, is worth quoting:

It is true that I have been an authoritarian head of state, or more exactly a blend of Sukarno of Indonesia and Nasser of Egypt. But I have never been in the same class as Amin Dada of Uganda or Macias N'Guema of Equitorial Guinea, even less their undisputed master of cruelty, Pol Pot of Democratic Kampuchea. Neither have I been this insignificant and feckless 'little king' depicted by some right-wing French newspapers, which see me as a kind of 'negro king'...with yellow skin...Quite simply, I am a man. With his good points and his bad. I am neither more or less virtuous than my brother men, created in the words of 'Genesis', in the image of God, but having to assume the inheritance of original sin.

Photo by Flickr user patrickmloeff.

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