First King, later Prince, then King again and finally, today, King Father. Norodom Sihanouk’s long career has been intimately linked with that of his Khmer Rouge opponents, for whom he was alternately enemy and ally. After his grandfather King Sisowath Monivong died in 1941, Sihanouk was designated King at the age of 19 by the Petainiste governor-general of Indochina, Admiral Decoux. To the French, he seemed an ideal choice: he was the heir of the two main royal lineages of Cambodia and an inexperienced, music-loving, flamboyant young man who would be putty in their hands. They were soon to discover their error. Sihanouk had the same character as his grandfather, King Norodom: he was mercurial, philandering, charming, quixotic, vain and as ruthless as he was unpredictable. Sihanouk got married six times and had fourteen children.
Over the next thirty years, his foreign policy could be summed up in two words: neutrality and territorial integrity. He led Cambodia to independence in 1953, positioned himself on the side of the non-aligned countries and governed then on a roller-coast ride through the shoals of the Cold War, maintaining a mesmerizing balance between conservatives and radicals at home; the rival ambitions of China, the United States and the Soviet Union abroad; and the menace, on the country’s borders, of Thai and Vietnamese territorial appetites. It was a bravura performance, but it came at a price. In 1955, he abdicated in favor of his father Norodom Suramarit in order to compete for political power at the ballot box. He created a political movement (the Sângkum Reastr Niyum, or Popular Socialist and Buddhist Community), which won successive elections until 1970. After his father's death in 1960, he became head of state (receiving the title of prince rather than king).
A decade later, all avenues for legal opposition to his rule had been closed off (Thion, 1989). To Westerners, Cambodia seemed a Shangri-la, ruled by a playboy prince who played the saxophone, crooned love songs and starred in his own mawkish films. But for the Cambodian people, Sihanouk was the sacred father of the Nation who also modernized his country by carrying out projects in the fields of education, public health and economy. Though behind the scenes, a thuggish police force repressed the least dissent (from both the right and the left wings). These years are well-described and analyzed “from the inside” by Charles Meyer, who was an adviser of the prince in the 1950’s and 1960’s, before falling into disgrace (Charles Meyer, 1971). Those who disapproved of Sihanouk’s policies faced a choice between remaining silent and taking up arms against him. In 1967, Pol Pot launched guerrilla operations against the royal government. The revolts were bloodily put down (Kiernan, 1985: chapter 7). Sihanouk’s power base among the middle classes began to crumble. After 30 years in power he was weary.
As the Vietnam War engulfed the Cambodian border provinces, Sihanouk deviated from his neutral foreign policy and was more inclined to favor Hanoi and Beijing than the USA. He tolerated an arms transit via the Ho Chin Minh trail as well as the presence of Vietnamese communist bases on Cambodian soil. Although he tried to restore the diplomatic relations with the USA in 1969, the right wing of his government was brewing: in March 1970, Sihanouk was overthrown by his cousin, Prince Sirik Matak, and the army commander and Prime Minister, Lon Nol. The prince decided to fight back. Inspired by his political model the General De Gaulle, he organized a resistance. With China’s backing, he agreed to an alliance with his former enemies, the Khmers Rouges. From his exile in Beijing, he launched an appeal to the Cambodian people to the armed struggle, took the lead of a government in exile (GRUNK) and an army (FUNK, mainly composed of communists). Five years later, after a horrific civil war, he returned to Phnom Penh – now a ghost-town, emptied of its inhabitants – as nominal Head of State. The following year, 1976, Sihanouk broke with the Khmers Rouges. There are many interpretations of his departure: he may have sensed the misfortune of his country and/or realized that he was becoming a ‘façade’ puppet in the hands of the Khmers Rouges, unable to play a real political role. Be that as it may, for this, he could have lost his life. But he did so en douceur and was certainly protected by the Chinese. He remained for the next two years in internal exile under house arrest in the comfort of the royal palace with his last spouse Monique. Even so, many members of his family, including five of his children, were assassinated by the Khmers Rouges.
After Cambodia was occupied by Vietnam in the winter of 1978, Sihanouk the nationalist pleaded Pol Pot’s cause at the UN. And though he later distanced himself from the Khmers Rouges, he continued to lend their struggle respectability until the Cold War ended, and the peace negotiations opened the way for his return and the holding of elections under UN auspices. In 1993, Sihanouk reascended the throne which he had vacated almost 40 years earlier. His twists and turns, his compromises, his use of power, had one overriding goal: to preserve, no matter what the cost, the Cambodian monarchy. In this he succeeded. In 2004, he abdicated a second time in favor of his son, Sihamoni. Today he divides his time between Cambodia, his palaces in Beijing and the North Korean capital, Pyongyang.
Sihanouk was and is still extremely prolix and wrote several books, which give interesting insight into his life and personality (La CIA contre le Cambodge, Chroniques de guerre et d'espoir, Souvenirs doux et amers, Prisonnier des Khmers rouges, 1974-1986. He even had a website where he comments on a daily basis the current events and past of his country). The era he was leading Cambodia is well detailed in Chandler’s History of Cambodia (chapters 10 and 11). An outstanding biography is Osborne’s Sihanouk. Prince of Light, Prince of Darkness (1994).
CHANDLER, David, 2000 (4th ed.), A History of Cambodia, Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.
KIERNAN, Ben, 1985, How Pol Pot Came to Power. A History of Communism in Kampuchea, 1930-1975, London: New Left Books.
OSBORNE, Milton, 1994, Sihanouk. Prince of Light, Prince of Darkness, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.