Saturday, February 9, 2013

Royal News Special Report: Burying a King in Cambodia


Starting in the Far East, the biggest royal event this week was the funeral service for HM “King-Father” Norodom Sihanouk in Cambodia. HM Queen Monique followed the coffin of her late husband, supported of course by HM King Norodom Sihamoni and they were joined by thousands of mourning Cambodians as well as foreign dignitaries including the French and Thai prime ministers and HIH Prince Akishino of Japan. The death of King Sihanouk marks the end of an era and many observers are not optimistic about the long-term survival of the monarchy. King Sihamoni has, so far, not shown the same drive and combativeness of his late father and younger generations seem less connected to the monarchy. Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has held power ever since being put in place by the Vietnamese following their invasion and overthrow of the genocidal dictator Pol Pot, has not accorded the new King the powers that are constitutionally his and which his father enjoyed. Historian David Chandler said, “Sihamoni is childless. The royalist party is in shreds,” and added that the general public, “loved Sihanouk, to an extent, and I think elderly people like the idea of there being a king, but Hun Sen and the younger generations couldn’t care less,” which does not bode well for the institution.

King Norodom Sihanouk, despite the constitutional limitations on his power, was still able to wield some influence because of his popularity and his lifetime of experience in the rough-and-tumble world of southeast Asian politics. He was known for his threats to abdicate and his frequent extended absences in China or North Korea to get the government to go his way. King Norodom Sihanomi, on the other hand, has so far seemed content to simply confine himself to ceremonial duties and religious festivals. The real power in the country, pretty much ever since the fall of Pol Pot, has been Prime Minister Hun Sen. Leader of the Cambodian People’s Party, Hun Sen was originally a commander in the Khmer Rouge but fled to Vietnam during the purges carried out by Pol Pot. He was supported by the communist Vietnamese and returned with them when the Vietnamese People’s Army invaded Cambodia and took down the Khmer Rouge regime. He originally served as Foreign Minister in the Vietnamese-installed government before becoming Prime Minister in 1985 with Vietnamese support. He has remained in power ever since with many accusations of brutality and human rights abuses surrounding him. A common tactic of his has been to provoke the neighboring Kingdom of Thailand around election time in order to call out the army to intimidate opposition groups.

FUNCINPEC, the royalist party, has been a frequent target of Hun Sen and his thug tactics (as has virtually every major party) but royal intervention has ensured that the royalist party has usually held some positions in what have officially been “power-sharing” coalition governments though, do not be fooled, it is always PM Hun Sen who has the final word on things. Given his background, it should come as no surprise that, while he has paid lip-service to the value of the monarchy in the past, he is a career politician with Marxist roots who is not a true monarchist at all. Hun Sen, and this is my opinion to take or leave as you see fit, is really a puppet for the powers-that-be in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. They are the ones he ran to in his time of crisis, they are the ones who put him in power in the first place and I have no doubt that he has remained in power thanks to their good graces. This is something that is not often talked about, mostly, I think, because it has become so fashionable to dismiss the whole “Vietnam conflict” as something unimportant and easily shrugged off. In fact, the situation that exists today is almost exactly what the Vietnamese communist leader Ho Chi Minh first envisioned decades ago and it should go without saying that monarchs have no place in that vision.

When Ho Chi Minh (as he would later be known) first came back to what was then French Indochina, his goal was instigate a communist revolution just as he had learned from his time with the French Communist Party (and their subterfuge would play a part in the undermining of the French war effort in Vietnam in the 50’s). However, he had, like all communists, grand ambitions. He did not intend for his communist dictatorship to include only the three reunited regions of Vietnam (Tonkin, Annam and Cochinchina) but the whole of Indochina with Laos and Cambodia being under Vietnamese communist rule as well. He got rid of the Vietnamese monarchy in 1945, got the French out and solidified his rule in the north by 1955 and by 1975 (though Ho Chi Minh had died by then) his successors saw off the United States and were supporting the communist takeover in Laos by the Pathet Lao and in Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge. The King of Laos went down with the ship and ended up being killed in a communist prison camp. The King of Cambodia, Norodom Sihanouk, was ousted with the support of the United States by his Prime Minister [the U.S. also more or less invented the Viet Cong; the O.S.S. (forerunner of the C.I.A.) actually armed and trained Ho Chi Minh’s guerillas in the 40’s to fight the Japanese. This hard core later became the Viet Minh which later became the Viet Cong -good job there Uncle Sam] and so was forced into the camp of the Khmer Rouge.

At that time, not everyone knew that Pol Pot was really the man in charge (he was a very secretive figure) and of course he eventually turned on the King and on the Vietnamese as well. Vietnam was also at odds with Maoist China, preferring the more safely distant U.S.S.R. for their support and so Pol Pot naturally allied with China against the Vietnamese. His nightmarish rule, which took the lives of five of the children of King Sihanouk, might have gone on much longer had Pol Pot not foolishly decided, in his unmatched paranoia, to actually attack Vietnam. This sparked a war across the whole region which ended in triumph for the Vietnamese. China invaded Vietnam, took a bloody nose and then declared “mission accomplished” and retreated back into China and the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia, drove out Pol Pot and took over. Hun Sen was basically their stooge and has remained in power ever since and I am sure he would not still be there if he could not be counted on to do the bidding of the politburo in Hanoi. Laos, likewise, was forced to sign a treaty allowing Vietnamese troops to occupy the country and effectively made themselves a protectorate of Vietnam. I am sure the leaders in Hanoi were not happy about the referendum that saw King Norodom Sihanouk restored to his throne in a constitutional monarchy (especially given how friendly he was with China) but the result has been effectively what Ho Chi Minh dreamed of decades ago. Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam all ruled (in fact if not in name) by communist dictators who take their marching orders from Hanoi.

This is a serious time for monarchies in Southeast Asia (or at least other than Malaysia which seems quite strong). The power, economic and otherwise, and influence of China is growing ever stronger. Whether Cambodia will be more influenced in the future by Peking or Hanoi makes little difference as far as the monarchy goes as neither one could ever be supportive of the institution. The current King seems unable or unwilling to stand up to Hun Sen as his father did at times and many are now wondering if the monarchy will endure at all in Cambodia. Added to that is the fact that the beloved King of Thailand, Bhumibol Adulyadej the Great, is quite elderly and ailing while the Crown Prince is not so widely respected as his father which has caused many to wonder about the future of the monarchy in that country as well. Once upon a time, support for the monarchy could be taken for granted, but not so anymore it seems. One need only look at the number of supporters there are for the red shirts or the new lady prime minister of Thailand to see that respect for the monarchy is not so widely held as it once was.

Opinion on King Sihanouk is certainly divided in the monarchist community. He certainly did some things that were regrettable, though I try to keep in mind that it would be hard for anyone to survive in the times that he did without some such “compromises” and he did manage the almost impossible in actually restoring a fallen monarchy. Some, I know, will never forgive him. However, all monarchists should take his passing seriously. His loss is not a good thing for the cause of traditional authority around the world. I am worried about what is yet to come for both Cambodia and Thailand and we should not overlook the power of trends. Every time a monarchy falls, anywhere in the world, it makes things that much more difficult for those that remain just as it makes republicanism seem all the more inevitable and universal. I would hope that all monarchists would rally to the support of King Norodom Sihamoni and the Crown Prince of Thailand when his time comes, not because of their own persons, but because of what they represent which is what monarchy is supposed to be all about anyway. Let us hope that the grim predictions prove false and that historians do not one day look back at the burial of King Norodom Sihanouk as the day monarchy in the Indochinese region itself began to come to an end.

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