The Bloodied Legacy of Cambodia’s Chameleon King

Posted on October 15, 2012


HONG KONG — He was a libertine and a francophile, a filmmaker and a painter, a serial husband and father and philanderer, a cherubic but ruthless god-king who liked to putter about in the garden. He played the sax in his own jazz band. He loved to eat. He once served Champagne to a visiting U.S. secretary of state. At 10 a.m.

Most of all, of course, King Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia was the consummate political flip-flopper, a shape-shifting monarch and realpolitik chameleon who helped to lead the global nonaligned movement but also, at one time or another, tethered his nation to the world’s major powers to preserve its independence.

The diplomatic chronology of King Sihanouk, who died Monday in Beijing at age 89, is mind-boggling in its complexity and contradictions. But his legacy might well be forever sealed and tarnished by his alliance with the hyper-communist Khmer Rouge movement that ravaged Cambodia from 1975 to 1979.

The regime, which came to power through his direct participation, would kill an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians through murder, torture, overwork and starvation — a rampage of such horror and psychosis that it targeted anyone with an education, anyone who spoke a foreign language, anyone who wore eyeglasses or played the piano.

“By allying himself with the Khmer Rouge and urging his countrymen to join, Sihanouk condemned his people to damnation,” said the historian Joel Brinkley in his book, “Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land.”

Elizabeth Becker and Seth Mydans, in their obituary of King Sihanouk in The Times, write, “In the end, King Sihanouk helped bring Pol Pot to power.”

King Sihanouk had initially persecuted Pol Pot, his Khmer Rouge compatriots and other leftists in the early and mid-1960s — as the Vietnam War was heating up and Southeast Asian communists were mounting insurgencies. The Khmer Rouge politburo fled the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, and many sought refuge in the country’s northwestern forests and in France.

Cambodia’s former King Norodom Sihanouk waves from a car on April 8, 2007 upon his arrival at Phnom Penh International Airport after spending half a year in China for medical treatment. Sihanouk died in Beijing on Monday Oct. 15, 2012. Photographer: Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP/Getty Images

The Khmer Rouge (or Red Khmer) movement was not even a blip on the geopolitical radar, certainly in Washington and even inside Cambodia. Even as late as 1970, Mr. Brinkley said, “the Khmer Rouge was still a negligible force.”

But that year, 1970, amid domestic political turmoil and worries for Cambodia’s sovereignty because of the Vietnam War, the prime minister, Lon Nol, staged a coup that unseated King Sihanouk.

Lon Nol was wealthy, corrupt, the king’s former police chief and confidant. A mystic who relied on astrologers and soothsayers before making key decisions, he also was in Washington’s pocket.

Many historians fault the coup, along with King Sihanouk, for elevating and enabling the Khmer Rouge. “While Sihanouk’s alliance with the Khmer Rouge certainly contributed to Pol Pot coming to power, such an eventuality was inevitable with Sihanouk no longer at the helm,” the journalist Nate Thayer, who has reported extensively and compellingly from Cambodia, told Rendezvous.

The Lon Nol coup took place while King Sihanouk was in France. Enraged, he flew to China to seek advice and support. The Communist leaders in Beijing pushed him toward their fellow travelers, the Khmer Rouge.

King Sihanouk took Beijing’s counsel and used radio broadcasts to urge Cambodians to join the Khmer Rouge resistance against the Lon Nol government. His messages resonated deeply in rural Cambodia, where he was adored by the peasantry.

“Thousands upon thousands heard him and complied,” said Mr. Brinkley. “Then and only then did the KR movement begin to take off.”

“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,” Seth and Elizabeth write.

Mr. Brinkley said King Sihanouk wrote reassuringly to several U.S. senators at the time that the Khmer Rouge intended ‘to set up a Swedish type of kingdom.’ “

In her book, “When the War Was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge Revolution,” Elizabeth said the Khmer Rouge with King Sihanouk as the perceived front man “did not appear to be a radical alternative to what had come before, merely a new variation on familiar Cambodian politicians.”

When Khmer Rouge fighters finally took control of Phnom Penh in April 1975, urban Cambodians obediently followed instructions to leave behind their homes and belongings and head into the countryside. Within days, 3 million people were on the roads. They were marching, Elizabeth writes, “into a life more miserable than any could imagine.”

“The Cambodians have two faces, two aspects,” King Sihanouk once said. “We can smile, and we can also kill.”

From the Times’s obituary:

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.

Mr. Thayer said Monday that King Sihanouk was “indisputably a master politician both domestically and internationally, able to juggle internal forces and global superpowers to keep his country at peace.”

“Cambodia remained an oasis of peace while Vietnam and Laos were engulfed in war and Thailand to the west was a land-based aircraft carrier,” Mr. Thayer said.

“His role in Southeast Asian politics remains unique and unmatched. He was the most transparent of politicians, really. He never tried to hide his faults nor accomplishments. Without Sihanouk, it could be argued, Cambodia would no longer be a nation state.”

New York Times

Former King of Cambodia, Sihanouk, Dies at 89

Norodom Sihanouk, the former king of Cambodia who survived half a century of political maneuvering that saw his country get sucked into the Vietnam War and endure the murderous regime of Pol Pot, has died. He was 89.

The monarch, who abdicated in 1955 and again 49 years later, died due to a heart condition early this morning in Beijing where he underwent medical treatment, Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan said by phone. Sihanouk, who maintained houses in the Chinese capital and Pyongyang, suffered from diabetes and prostate cancer.

Notorious for switching allegiances, Sihanouk oversaw the transition from an absolute to constitutional monarchy, won independence from France, broke off relations with the U.S. during the Vietnam War and weathered two periods of involvement with Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, the regime blamed for the deaths of about one in five of the country’s people during the late 1970s.

“He has a mixed legacy,” said David Chandler, a U.S. diplomat stationed in Cambodia in the 1950s who lectures at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. “His principles were self-preservation and terrific patriotism. He made people feel that they were worthwhile and their country was worthwhile.”

Sihanouk held numerous posts, including prime minister, president, and leader of various governments-in-exile before returning to Phnom Penh in 1991 and being appointed constitutional monarch in 1993. He was succeeded in 2004 by his son, King Norodom Sihamoni.

Boycott Threatened

The Cambodian government will arrange to bring his body home and hold a ceremony to remember him, Phay Siphan said.

“It’s a big loss for our nation,” he said. “He understood the people and he put himself on the same ground as other Cambodians.”

Under Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in power since 1985, Cambodia’s economy may expand 6.6 percent this year, according to the World Bank. The opposition has threatened to boycott a nationwide vote next year, alleging that election officials favor the ruling party.

Norodom Sihanouk was born in Phnom Penh on Oct. 31, 1922, and educated at the French Lycee in Vietnam before continuing his studies in France. At 18 he was chosen by the French colonial administration to succeed his grandfather as king.

The young monarch turned against his colonial backers, campaigning for and winning full independence in November 1953. He abdicated in 1955 in favor of his father so that he could enter politics. As Prince Sihanouk, he set up the Sangkum Reastr Niyum — the People’s Socialist Community party.

‘Ended Royalty’

“At that point he basically ended royalty in Cambodia,” Chandler said. “He just didn’t want to be king; he wanted to be the boss.”

Caught up in the competing interests of the Soviet Union, the U.S. and China, Sihanouk attempted to steer a neutral path in foreign policy, becoming a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement. In 1965, he broke ties with the U.S. over the Vietnam War, allowing the North Vietnamese to set up bases in Cambodia.

Ousted in a U.S.-backed coup by his Prime Minister Lon Nol in 1970, Sihanouk sided with a band of communist resistance fighters known as the Khmer Rouge. When the group swept to power five years later, he was appointed nominal head of state.

He resigned in 1976 and was placed under house arrest as the Khmer Rouge embarked on a radical transformation of Cambodian society. Pol Pot’s government forced the evacuation of the capital and other urban areas and embarked on a killing spree to eradicate intellectuals and ideological opponents.

Death Toll

Estimates of the death toll vary, with Amnesty International putting the number at 1.4 million out of an estimated population of 7.1 million, according to the U.S. Library of Congress’s country study.

Sihanouk, together with other Cambodian factions, again forged a coalition with the Khmer Rouge after Pol Pot was forced from power by the Vietnamese in January 1979. The group was created to oppose the Vietnam-backed government of Heng Samrin; a decade of civil war followed.

“The humble people of Cambodia are the most wonderful in the world,” Sihanouk said in 1979, according to the 1980 book “Sideshow” by British journalist William Shawcross. “Their great misfortune is that they always have terrible leaders who make them suffer. I am not sure that I was much better myself, but perhaps I was the least bad.”

Sihanouk’s path back to power began in August 1989 when Cambodia’s factions met under United Nations auspices in Paris. A settlement was reached the following year, and in 1991 Sihanouk returned to Phnom Penh to begin the reconstruction process ahead of nationwide elections in May 1993.

‘Sarcastic, Petulant’

He largely thumbed his nose at the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia, better known as Untac, which had executive powers in the run-up to the election, wrote Pulitzer- prize winning journalist Henry Kamm in his book, “Cambodia: Report From a Stricken Land.”

“Where was Sihanouk, the hope of the international community for persuading Cambodians to make peace and establish badly needed national solidarity?” Kamm wrote. “He ostentatiously neglected his chairmanship of the Supreme National Council, hardly honored his country with his presence and sent a stream of sarcastic or petulant fax messages to Phnom Penh from abroad to give vent to his disdain for Untac.”

Aside from politics, Sihanouk was a keen musician and produced and directed about 20 films — all about Cambodia. He routinely invited diplomats for lengthy karaoke sessions and maintained a blog.

“I never thought of film-making as a simple amusement or artistic activity,” he wrote in 1995. “I wanted, and still want, to show my country, its past and contemporary history, its culture, its people, and express my feelings regarding certain facets of our nation’s life. The star of my films is never an actor. It is always Cambodia.”