Norodom Sihanouk, Cambodian Leader Through Shifting Allegiances, Dies at 89

Norodom Sihanouk, the charismatic Cambodian leader whose remarkable skills of political adaptation personified for the world the tiny, troubled kingdom where he was a towering figure through six decades, died early Monday in Beijing. He was 89.

The death was announced by Deputy Prime Minister Nhiek Bunchhay, quoted by news services. The former king had been dogged by ill health for years and regularly traveled to China for treatment.

King Sihanouk was crowned in 1941, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was president, and held on to some form of power for the next 60-plus years. He served as monarch, prime minister, figurehead of the Communist revolution, leader in exile, and once again as monarch until he abdicated in 2004. He handed the crown to one of his sons, Norodom Sihamoni, after which he was known as the retired king, or the king-father.

He survived colonial wars, the Khmer Rouge and the intrigues of the cold war, but his last years were marked by expressions of melancholy, and he complained often about the poverty and abuses of what he called “my poor nation.”

Alternately charming and ruthless, he dazzled world leaders with his political wit and, in the process, raised the stature of his small Southeast Asian nation. He won independence for Cambodia from the French colonial rulers in 1953, using diplomacy and repression to outmaneuver his domestic rivals but without resorting to war, as his neighbors in Vietnam had done.

He put his nation on a modern footing in the 1960s, especially bolstering the education system, but his Buddhist socialist agenda did poorly and produced economic stagnation.

When the Vietnam War threatened to engulf the region, he tried to carve out a neutral role for Cambodia, siding neither with the Communists nor the United States. But when the Vietnamese Communists began using the port of Sihanoukville and Cambodia’s eastern border to ship military supplies on what was known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail, he took steps to repair relations with the United States. He turned a blind eye when the Nixon administration undertook a secret bombing campaign in 1969 against the border area of Cambodia. But this only further unsettled his country and led to a coup that ousted him the next year.

Convinced that the United States had been behind the overthrow, King Sihanouk allied himself with the Khmer Rouge at the urging of his Chinese patrons, giving the Cambodian Communists his prestige and enormous popularity. Their victory in 1975 brought the ruthless Pol Pot to power, with King Sihanouk serving, for the first year, as the figurehead president until he was placed under house arrest and fell into a deep depression. Over the next four years, the Khmer Rouge regime led to the death of 1.7 million people and nearly destroyed the country.

Criticized throughout his life for these dramatic shifts in allegiances, King Sihanouk said he followed only one course in politics: “the defense of the independence, the territorial integrity and the dignity of my country and my people.”

In fact, he skillfully manipulated the great powers, usually with the support of China, to ensure his survival as well as his country’s independence. His worst nightmare, he said in an interview, was to be pushed out of his country’s political life into a quiet retirement, like Vietnam’s last emperor, Bao Dai, who died in obscurity in Paris in 1997.

Instead, King Sihanouk returned in 1993 as monarch and head of state after an accord brokered by the United Nations ended nearly 14 years of war in Cambodia.

Even in his darkest moments, the king never lost his flair for flamboyance or his taste for the finer things. As a young ruler and the scion of one of Asia’s oldest royal houses, he gained a well-deserved reputation as a playboy, a gourmand and an amateur filmmaker.

In his years in exile with his wife, Queen Monique, he kept his Cambodian movement alive by lavishly entertaining diplomats and foreign officials with Champagne breakfasts and elaborate French meals.

Denied any active role in government, he contented himself with the ceremonial position of king, still revered by many peasants.

Occasionally he interfered in politics. He undermined Prince Norodom Ranariddh, another son, by forcing him to accept a position as co-prime minister after winning the first postwar democratic election in 1993. Prince Ranariddh was ousted from that position in a coup by the other co-prime minister, Hun Sen, who became the country’s dominant power during King Sihanouk’s final years.

Norodom Sihanouk was born in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, on Oct. 31, 1922. A prince of the Norodom branch of the royal family, he was never considered a serious candidate to gain the throne. Instead, he was seen as a sensitive, if lonely, prince with a serious gift for music and, later, a passion for film.

He received a first-rate French education, initially at a primary school in Phnom Penh and then at the Lycee Chasseloup-Laubat in Saigon, the best in colonial Indochina. He was only 18 when King Monivong died in 1941 and the French colonial powers tapped him as the unlikely successor.

France had surrendered to Nazi Germany and was under Vichy control, worried that it would also lose its Indochinese colonies to Japan. The prince seemed the most malleable candidate, the one who would obey the dictates of French colonial officials.

For the first three years, King Sihanouk, a true Francophile, met all their expectations. As World War II engulfed Asia, he was a loyal partner of the French colonial administrators, who collaborated with Japan and hoped to fend off a nascent Cambodian independence movement.

In those early years, King Sihanouk seemed uninterested in government. He filled his days pursuing women and, in the tradition of his forebears, had several consorts who eventually bore him at least 13 children.

But in March 1945, as they were losing the war, the Japanese sought to oust the French in Cambodia. King Sihanouk stepped forward on the side of Japan and declared Cambodia the new independent state of Kampuchea. With Japan’s defeat, King Sihanouk welcomed back the French, largely ignoring the growing number of Cambodians who thought their country should remain independent.

By his own account, the king did not pick up the banner of independence again until 1951, using it to fend off challenges from democratic and Communist movements demanding an end to French colonialism.

Taking advantage of the increasing French weakness from Communist victories in neighboring Vietnam, King Sihanouk persuaded the French to make Cambodia independent in November 1953 in advance of the 1954 Geneva peace conference that led to a divided Vietnam.

Then in a cunning move, King Sihanouk announced he would give up the throne to run in his country’s first independent elections. Through a combination of repression, rigging and reliance on the votes of peasants who still considered him a god-king, his party swept the elections, and he set about creating Cambodia anew.

His brand of politics evolved into a one-party rule with some dissidents and rival parties pulled into his umbrella political party, the People’s Socialist Community. The towers of Angkor decorated the country’s new flag, one of the many ways that King Sihanouk used the massive temple complex at Angkor as a visible reminder that Cambodia was once the premier state and culture of the region.

He maintained strong ties to France, hiring French experts to help run his government and French teachers for his schools. In Phnom Penh, he nurtured a cafe society of intellectuals while he left the countryside in what he considered a more or less bucolic state but that was, in fact, a backward region of grinding poverty.

In contrast to its neighbors — Vietnam to the east, with its war, and Thailand to the west, with its disfiguring modern development and militarism — Cambodia appeared to be a welcome oasis throughout the 1960s, with now Prince Sihanouk presiding as charming, benevolent despot, treating his citizens like devoted children.

At the same time, he was imprisoning and sometimes executing opponents or driving others — notably the Communist leader Solath Sar, who would become Pol Pot — into exile and fueling discontent that fed growing political opposition and eventually armed insurrection.

Stories about King Sihanouk’s extravagance became a staple of the diplomatic circuit, especially as he turned his hand to his first loves — music and film. He entertained guests at his exclusive parties on his saxophone and embarked on a film career, eventually producing 19 movies for which he was director, producer, scriptwriter, composer and often leading man.

All the while he was head of state of a country increasingly squeezed by the Vietnam War. He took his place as one of the leaders of the nonaligned movement of newly independent nations — Egypt and India among them — hoping to emerge from poverty and avoid taking sides in the cold war. Yet he also accepted the outstretched hand of China, which was convinced that the United States posed a military threat to its borders.

Crystallizing Cambodia’s hopes for avoiding entanglement was a speech in 1966 by the French president, Charles de Gaulle, in Phnom Penh calling for the end of the Vietnam War and the neutrality of Indochina. He paid King Sihanouk the ultimate compliment by saying Cambodia and France were alike, with “a history laden with glory and sorrow, an exemplary culture and art, and a fertile land with vulnerable frontiers.” But the war would spill across Cambodia’s border.

With King Sihanouk’s acquiescence, the Vietnamese Communists used Cambodia for its logistics. When the Vietnamese sanctuaries expanded, he only mildly objected to the United States’s secret bombing of them. That bombing campaign was later cited in the articles of impeachment drawn up but never used against President Richard M. Nixon.

Despite the growing unrest in Cambodia, King Sihanouk was unprepared for his overthrow in 1970 by Prince Sirik Matak, a cousin, and Gen. Lon Nol. Supported by the United States, the new government immediately allowed American troops to invade Cambodia from Vietnam.

The invasion ignited protests around the world, including those at Kent State University in Ohio, where national guardsmen killed four students. After his ouster, King Sihanouk fled to Beijing, where Chinese leaders persuaded him to join forces with Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, the group of Cambodian Communists that had been seeking to overthrow him since the ’60s.

Although King Sihanouk had aggressively pursued the Khmer Rouge, arresting and often torturing them, he was so stung by the betrayal of the coup plotters that he agreed to head their resistance. His name and appearance in propaganda films and booklets helped the Communists recruit peasants in Cambodia and gave respectability to their cause in diplomatic circles. In the end, King Sihanouk helped bring Pol Pot to power.

The Khmer Rouge won in 1975 and immediately began a reign of terror. Cambodians were ordered out of the towns and cities and sent to grueling work camps and farms in the countryside. Cambodia was cut off from the rest of the world. Society was destroyed, with all religion and professions outlawed.

Intellectuals, monks and anyone deemed a political enemy were murdered. Tens of thousands of people died of treatable diseases, overwork or starvation.

King Sihanouk was the titular president during the first year of the Khmer Rouge rule. He said he had resigned a year later and was put under house arrest with his consort, Princess Monique, in one of the palaces. There he listened to world news on a radio and, he said, at times wanted to commit suicide.

He was rescued when the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and overthrew the Khmer Rouge in 1979. But rather than turn against Pol Pot, King Sihanouk went to the United Nations and defended him, saying the country’s enemy was Vietnam.

For the next 12 years, King Sihanouk provided a fig leaf of respectability for the Khmer Rouge as they and several non-Communist groups tried to evict Vietnam from Cambodia in the name of national liberation. The United States, China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations supported King Sihanouk, who maneuvered himself into a pivotal role in the final negotiations. Lined up against him, the Khmer Rouge and the rest of the resistance were Vietnam, the Soviet Union and Mr. Sen, who was then the head of the Cambodian government established under the Vietnamese occupation.

With the end of the cold war, Cambodia was no longer hostage to great power politics. The United Nations negotiated a settlement to the war in 1991, and national elections were held two years later. King Sihanouk returned to Phnom Penh to a thunderous welcome, encouraging him to believe he could become a powerful chief of state once again. But other Cambodian politicians, including his own children, did not want him back in control.

A party led by Prince Norodom Ranariddh won the elections. Mr. Sen’s party came in second; the Khmer Rouge boycotted the elections. Furious that he had lost, Mr. Sen and his surrogates threatened to reignite the war. King Sihanouk stepped in and persuaded the United Nations to create the position of co-prime minister for Mr. Sen, effectively nullifying his son’s victory. However, King Sihanouk was returned to the throne and became king-father for the rest of his life.

Chastened, he maintained that he had been above the fray throughout, attempting to duplicate the role of national unifier played by King Bhumibol Adulyadej in neighboring Thailand.

But for the most part, King Sihanouk sided with Mr. Sen, his political son. Toward the end of his life, the king reduced his once hectic travel schedule and rarely ventured outside Asia. Beijing, where the Chinese government maintained a villa for him, was his most frequent destination.

Michael Leifer, the Southeast Asia expert and professor at the London School of Economics who died in 2001, wrote that “the powerful myth of Sihanouk contributed to the people of Cambodia and the international community” repeatedly turning to him “as the font of national unity.”

He added: “The record of the man, however, would suggest a greater facility for reigning than for ruling. He has been more at home with the pomp and circumstance of government than with its good practice.”

by Elizabeth Becker and Seth Mydans
Source – The New York Times