Wednesday, February 17, 2010

King Norodom Sihanouk: The Ultimate Survivor of Southeast Asia

Alongside his fellow monarch King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama IX, of Thailand; the most constant name in politics on the Indochinese peninsula has been King Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia. Throughout his long career he has played the roles of divine king, politician, communist front man and constitutional monarch. No other figure in the nations of the former French Union of Indochina can match him in longevity, popularity and sheer ability to play the dirty game of politics and survive. Throughout his life he has survived numerous wars, he has been overthrown, he has been sentenced to death, he has been a nominal guerilla, a prisoner in his own country and at various times has symbolized an ancient, traditional, Cambodia, a bloody communist slave state and a, nominal at least, democracy. He holds the world record for politicians with the most numerous positions in government and to this day is the senior monarch of the Kingdom of Cambodia; father figure to the only southeast Asian monarchy to have been restored after falling in the communist takeover after World War II. This is the story of the admired, condemned, always controversial and certainly unique King Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia.

He was born on October 31, 1922, Halloween, appropriately enough for someone as adept at being in costume, to King Norodom Suramarit and Queen Sisowath Kosawak of Cambodia. He was educated in the best traditions of French colonialism in the Khmer capitol of Phnom Penh and Saigon as well as having some military training in France later on. Contrary to popular opinion, Cambodia fared rather well under French control and the royal family actually enjoyed a greater income than their nominal superiors in the imperial family of neighboring Vietnam. When Sihanouk was only 19 his grandfather, King Sisowath Monivong died and he was named King of Cambodia in 1941. This, of course, was during World War II and the rising dominance of the Empire of Japan in East Asia. The young King Sihanouk, though always something of a Francophile, became more nationalistic and called for Cambodian independence from France, which went hand in hand with the state interests of Japan which occupied Indochina after the fall of France in Europe. A declaration of independence was even issued in 1945, under Japanese auspices, but this ended with the defeat of Japan soon after as it did elsewhere in Indochina. That same year the Emperor of Vietnam abdicated in favor of the communists and Laos seemed ready to fall to because of the loyalty that monarch felt to France. King Sihanouk, however, stuck by his nationalist guns and went into exile in Thailand in May of 1953, proclaiming that he would not return until France granted Cambodia her independence.

France granted this request in November and King Sihanouk returned but did not remain long on the throne. Having tasted some of the political spotlight, he wanted more, and decided to abdicate so as to play a more active role in politics. He surrendered his throne to his father, King Norodom Suramarit and became the prime minister of the newly independent Cambodian kingdom in 1955. When his father died in 1960 he was elected head of state but remained still simply Prince Norodom Sihanouk, though three years later he changed the constitution to make himself head of state for life. Of course, during this time conflict was already raging in neighboring Laos and Vietnam, but Cambodia remained officially neutral, at peace and prosperous. Sihanouk was extremely popular among the rural peasants of his country, mostly very religious people who treated him almost like a god, giving him credit for everything from the prevailing peace to the good weather and high rice production. However, they had the benefit of being uninformed as to his rather irregular private life.

In his younger days Sihanouk had quite a playboy reputation. He had seven wives during his life, legal and illegal. He lived in rather extravagant luxury and was known to entertain foreign dignitaries with extremely raunchy pornographic films from France. He made some movies himself, which he wrote, directed and starred in and all of which were focused on the glorification of Cambodia. He kept up all of the mystical pomp and ceremony of his office and yet in person, with his public, he was quite informal, even familial and could seem quite humble. Along with the role of mystical god king he was able to play the part of familiar, paternal, monarch. Whether this was genuine or simply the act of an extremely astute politician we will probably never know. His political activities were not always prudent but they always seemed to work out, for him at least, in the end. He was, for instance, a very early and vocal critic of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Also, despite his royal position, he crossed ideological lines in his foreign relations. The former nationalist made friendly overtures to the conservative President Charles DeGaulle of France and was even a close friend of the murderous Chairman Mao Zedong of communist China. He visited the Soviet Union, establishing at least good relations there and often spent time as a guest of the notoriously oppressive communist regime in North Korea. He seemed adept at identifying those players who held strong cards and cozying up to them.

These ties with international communism would prove important as it was also during this period that the Cambodian communists, which he named the Khmer Rouge, began recruiting support from unhappy peasants in the countryside. They grew slowly but steadily although the vast majority of rural Cambodia remained devoutly loyal to Prince Sihanouk. The prince did not think too much of them at the time but continued to play the delicate balancing game of a neutral power in a region surrounded by nations with civil wars. He also kept up his own style of public relations with the United States. In 1967 the glamorous First Lady Jackie Kennedy visited Cambodia, at the invitation of Sihanouk, and he eagerly played host to her while still denouncing what he called American aggression in Vietnam. The U.S. was interfering with the right of self determination in Vietnam, according to Sihanouk, by aiding the South Vietnamese in fighting off the communist forces.

In 1969 U.S. President Richard Nixon launched secret B-52 bombing raids on Viet Cong and North Vietnamese army posts in Cambodia. Sihanouk was not informed but neither were the many in the American military or the Congress. Contacts also began to be made with more American friendly figures in Cambodia who opposed the neutrality of the Sihanouk regime and the blinking at the presence of communist Vietnamese forces in their country. To many it did not seem that Prince Sihanouk was neutral at all but was passively favoring the communist forces in Southeast Asia. This attitude was further supported when it was learned that King Sihanouk had actually agreed to the establishment of communist Vietnamese bases in his country and to allow communist China to move supplies through Cambodia in support of the North Vietnamese operating against the U.S. and South Vietnam.

There were riots in Phnom Penh against the Vietnamese presents and people claiming to support the United States. When Sihanouk was questioned on this he dismissed their sincerity. According to him these people were only seeking money from the United States and did not care about the future of their country. As he put it, these people were, “more patriots for dollars than for Cambodia”. Nonetheless, it was a very serious situation. When Sihanouk went on vacation to Europe, the Soviet Union and China in 1970 his enemies in Phnom Penh decided to act. Former Prime Minister General Lon Nol seized power in a coup; declared Norodom Sihanouk deposed and sentenced him to death in absentia. He did not change the form of government though, in fact his Deputy Prime Minister was a prince of the royal family, and promised to take a hard line against the communists. Immediately he began receiving secret U.S. aid which would increase and turn into public support in the future.

During this time, Sihanouk was still in China visiting Chairman Mao. He naturally denounced the actions of Lon Nol and pledged to resist his new regime at any cost. The King became chief of state of a government in exile in Beijing and in one of his most crucial moves, one that would have lasting consequences for his country, went on the radio and told his people to go to the jungle and join the Khmer Rouge. This gave a huge boost to the communist guerilla movement and they soon stepped up their attacks. Lon Nol retaliated as best he could with his military expanding rapidly with American support and atrocities were committed by both sides. The outside war also spilled into the country as the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) launched raids into Cambodia against the communist strongholds there. In a very controversial move President Nixon also authorized an American incursion into Cambodia to attack VC and NVA bases along the frontier. King Sihanouk, still in China, denounced all of these actions and promised to fight to the last until his throne was recovered.

In October of 1970 Lon Nol took the final symbolic step of abolishing the ancient Cambodian monarchy. The prosperity and peace of the early reign of Sihanouk was gone and the economy was in shambles. The army of the Cambodian republic was strong though, if rather amateurish, thanks to American financial support and there was real support for the republic among those who opposed the Khmer Rouge, the presence of the Vietnamese communists in their country and those who felt that solidarity with America would be to the great benefit of the Cambodian people. However, the countryside was still full of devoted adherents of King Sihanouk and even in the cities slogan supporting him were often scrawled on the walls. With the arrival of the Lon Nol republic, war also became a reality. In 1971 North Vietnamese forces hit Phnom Penh for the first time, wiping out the small Cambodian air force.

The United States stepped up with more support for Lon Nol and in many ways it was only American air support and American dollars that was keeping him in power and his government functioning. By early 1971 when South Vietnamese forces launched an ultimately unsuccessful attack the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the neutral Kingdom of Laos it seemed that all Indochina was officially at war and third options were disappearing. One was either with the communists or with the Americans. Corruption among the Cambodian army also cost the United States dearly with inflated supply requests and fake soldiers. At the height of its existence roughly a quarter of the entire Cambodian military existed only on paper with dishonest officers pocketing the American money sent to pay these imaginary troops.

In 1973 their communist opponents got another big boost when, for the first time, King Sihanouk returned to Cambodia and entered the Khmer Rouge territory in the deep jungle. Around the world communist media showed the video of the chief of state in exile embracing the leaders of the Khmer Rouge, including one not many thought significant at that time, one Saloth Sar who later became known to the world as Pol Pot. However, Norodom Sihanouk was under no illusions about the flattery and obeisance given to him by the Khmer Rouge. He understood their politics perfectly and knew that he was only a figurehead. He once admitted that, “when they gain power, they will spit me out like a cherry stone”. Still, he intended to use them as they used him but given his knowledge of the situation, one wonders what he was using them for. The Khmer Rouge leaders also understood the situation perfectly and trained party members and the cadre leadership that they should not believe in King Sihanouk. They knew the people believed in him and that is why it was necessary to keep him as the front man, but the party leadership could not believe in him because, as they stressed, at heart the revolution and Sihanouk are enemies that cannot be reconciled. Their tactic of using the King was working well. Thanks to the support of King Sihanouk the Khmer Rouge grew from 3,000 to 60,000 members in three years. This would prove crucial later on as many confess on both sides that the Khmer Rouge could never have succeeded without King Sihanouk backing them.

In 1973 the U.S. stepped up the bombing campaign to counter the increasing communist activity by both the North Vietnamese and the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge used this to recruit more support for their war against Lon Nol, telling people that the U.S. meant to destroy the entire country. That July, the bombing campaign in Cambodia became public in the United States, four years after it had started. The Congress was outraged and the very first calls were made for the impeachment of President Nixon. The bombing campaign was halted and the Cambodian republic was left on its own to confront the Khmer Rouge who began their offensive against Phnom Penh with the new year of 1975. At the outset of the campaign they had 80,000 soldiers and besieged the city, firing rockets and artillery into the city on a daily basis, which was filled with some two million refugees who had fled there to escape the American bombs and Khmer Rouge attacks. As all roads and rail lines were cut, the city and the perimeter outposts began to starve.

To help the Cambodian people and get around Congressional restrictions the U.S. military chartered civilian planes to fly food and ammunition into Phnom Penh under heavy communist fire but supplies continued to run low. The Mekong River was also a lifeline, carrying both vital supplies and luxury items but by March most of the boats had been sunk by the Khmer Rouge and no further efforts were made. Khmer Rouge rocket attacks went on and on, day after day and conditions grew worse. In one area republican troops were forced to resort to cannibalism to survive. Casualty figures skyrocketed and the local medical facilities were overwhelmed; in fact the Cambodian army had less than 20 surgeons of its own. Disease and famine gripped the once abundant countryside and foreign doctors flew in voluntarily to help deal with the humanitarian crisis. On April 1, 1975 Lon Nol was advised to leave by the United States who hoped that this might enable them to come to terms with King Sihanouk. However, the monarch turned guerilla was not the one making the decisions and the Khmer Rouge were not about to start negotiating now when victory was already in sight.

Quite apart from any talk of peace, the Khmer Rouge took this as a sign that the Lon Nol regime was about to collapse and they boldly broadcast death lists of all those they considered traitors who would be killed once they were in power, all done, at this time, in the name of the beloved King Norodom Sihanouk. Their assumptions were correct and on April 12 the United States began evacuating all remaining American personnel by helicopter to a fleet in the Gulf of Thailand. Most of the native officials, however, refused to leave and knowingly or not sealed their fate. Less than a week later the airport was overrun by Khmer Rouge guerillas and the following day the communist forces moved into Phnom Penh. They tried to put on a benevolent front and appealed to all republican officials to meet with them so they could work in cooperation with the new regime. Those naïve enough to answer this call were slaughtered to the last man. Using the threat of an imminent American bombing campaign (which was a lie, the U.S. had no plan to bomb anyone in Cambodia) the Khmer Rouge frightened the public into evacuating Phnom Penh completely within two days. They had won the war, the country belonged to them and they prepared to put their fanatical policies into effect, yet they owed it all to King Norodom Sihanouk.

For the moment, King Sihanouk remained as head of state but Pol Pot was the man in charge and he set about on his campaign to remold Cambodia into a communist, rural utopia with disastrous consequences for the Khmer people. The name of the country was changed to Democratic Kampuchea and all government services were abolished as was the currency and all class distinctions. Pol Pot did not, like most communists, create a cult of personality around himself; he remained a shadowy and unseen figure, known only as Brother Number One. The cities were emptied at gunpoint and the entire populace was relocated to the countryside and forced to work in the rice fields. Pol Pot wanted a nation of peasant farmers with no distinctions of any kind. Buddhist monks were massacred; all educated people were massacred so that there would be no intellectual elite. Anyone who showed affection for a spouse or children or parents was executed; in the new state all men were brothers and all women were sisters. Anyone who wore glasses was killed, anyone critical of the regime or with any ties to the outside world was killed. The sick, disabled or retarded were all killed. All foreign minorities were killed. Many, many more starved to death or were worked to death in the countryside.

On April 4, 1976 King Sihanouk was officially removed as head of state, just as he had predicted and was placed under house arrest in the palace complex with the rest of the royal family. In light of what else was going on in the country they were lucky to even be left alive. Also in Phnom Penh the Khmer Rouge established its infamous torture prison at Toul Sleng, known as S-21 were hordes of Cambodians were tortured before being taken to the killing fields and beaten to death; many were buried alive. Pol Pot had created, in many ways, the most pure communist state of any revolutionary. Liberal intellectuals elsewhere commented that Pol Pot had gone so far to the left he had almost met up with the extreme right in his effort to revert Cambodia back to the agrarian Khmer empire it had once been with himself in the role of the old Hindu god kings. In any event, the result was one of the worst genocides in human history as upwards of two million Cambodians, roughly a third of the entire population, was killed or died of starvation or disease at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. King Sihanouk could only look on from captivity as his people were devastated by the very forces he had enabled to assume power.

The Khmer Rouge, an ally of Red China, was also an enemy of Communist Vietnam and eventually, with relations between China and Vietnam becoming openly hostile, the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia with the intention of overthrowing the Khmer Rouge slave state. The former King Sihanouk was sent by the Khmer Rouge government to New York to denounce the Vietnamese invasion before the UN. He did not, however, return but rather than going into exile in a free country opted instead to stay with his old friends in the communist dictatorships of Red China and North Korea. He tried to distance himself from the tormentors of his people, yet at the same time he again expressed his willingness to join with the Khmer Rouge to resist the Vietnamese invaders who soon occupied much of the country and forced the Khmer Rouge back into their old jungle strongholds.

In 1982 Sihanouk became president (not king) of the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea in partnership with representatives of his own royalist party, Funcinpec, the Khmer National Liberation Front (later the Buddhist political party) and the Khmer Rouge. This group, unlike the forces with Pol Pot, engaged the international community and continued to denounce the Vietnamese occupation but expressed a willingness to allow other foreign forces into the country to restore the situation. Amidst increasing international pressure the Vietnamese withdrew in 1989, leaving behind former Khmer Rouge member and Vietnamese ally Hun Sen in power over a puppet government called the People’s Republic of Kampuchea. It did not take long for negotiations to begin between the coalition under Sihanouk and the government of Hun Sen who finally signed an agreement in 1991. That November Prince Sihanouk returned to Cambodia, now under UN direction to prepare for national elections to be held to determine the form of government the liberated Cambodia would take. Khmer Rouge forces under Pol Pot remained in the deep jungle, but aside from minor raids they had ceased to play any role in national life.

Elections brought the royalist party to power, but Hun Sen remained the most powerful force in the country thanks mostly to the influence of communist Vietnam. The elections restored Norodom Sihanouk to the throne as King of Cambodia in 1993 but Hun Sen soon began a long reign as prime minister. This was a new constitutional monarchy which everyone seemed able to live with. Most people felt comforted by the presence of Norodom Sihanouk on the throne, expressing his support for democracy, and the communists and their Vietnamese backers remained peaceful so long as Hun Sen continued to be the one holding actual power. Sihanouk began to suffer from failing health just as his reputation in the worldwide community started to mend. In his early days he had been a well regarded figure for his commitment to Cambodian independence and peaceful neutrality. He suffered when word got out of his secret agreements with the communists and his support of the Khmer Rouge. Their atrocities did a great deal of damage to his legacy but now he was able to be the face of a new, liberal and, supposedly, democratic Kingdom of Cambodia.

Due to his failing health, King Sihanouk was often in China undergoing medical treatment, but he still remained a very dominant figure in national life. Simple people who visited him at the palace were never turned away and never lift without a gift from the king. He jumped into the world wide web and still has the most popular website in Cambodia. Unlike western constitutional monarchs he is not shy about giving his opinions on various subjects. His political views carry weight but even some of his most devout supporters were shocked when he openly announced his support for homosexuals being given the right to marry, even though there had not been much demand for it in Buddhist Cambodia. He had often been at odds with the government and in 2004 went into exile in North Korea and later China in protest to the oppressive actions of the Hun Sen regime and the political infighting between the major parties. In October of that year he shocked his countrymen by announcing his abdication, which left Cambodian officials scrambling to find a replacement.

One week later the Crown Council voted his son, Prince Norodom Sihamoni, in as king but with his father retaining most of his government powers as senior king or, as it is most often translated, as King Father. He remains to this day a widely respected and revered figure in Cambodia, though as a constitutional monarch his significance had somewhat decreased among the upcoming generation of younger Cambodians. In the wider world he remains a controversial figure, admired by some and despised by others. No one, however, can deny his political talent, his ability to survive and his ability to weather the most terrible storms and always come out on top. Some attribute this to talent and foresight while others chalk it up to a total lack of real principles. Whatever is the case, he has been the dominant figure in Cambodian politics since the end of World War II and the most constant face in Southeast Asia from that time until the present. He has seen his country through good times and bad times and it will take some perspective after his death to look back and determine whether his influence was altogether benevolent or not. Certainly his support for the Khmer Rouge and the popularity his presence gave to them will cause a great many people to consider him a villain forever, but among his own people, his reputation will likely be as one of the great kings in their ancient history, whether deserved or not.

After a long period of worsening health, King-Father Norodom Sihanouk died in Beijing at the age of 89 on October 14, 2012, still the most controversial but most well known and ever-present figure in the last century of Cambodian national life.

1 comment:

  1. If nothing else, his life demonstrates an important lesson: never band togheter with communists. It's not worth it.

    God have mercy on him.


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