King Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia holds the Guinness World Record for occupying the most political offices in a lifetime. He has, among others, acted in the capacity of a sovereign prince, king, prime minister, president and leader of political exile groups.
On Wednesday, Oct. 17, however, he returned to Cambodia, not as the mottled, gray-haired, benevolent-looking grandfather I grew up seeing on billboards across the capital, Phnom Penh, but as a solemn cadaver waiting to be put to rest by way of Buddhist cremation. Thousands of Cambodians, many of them weeping, lined the streets to pay their respects to the old monarch.
Sihanouk died from a heart attack in a Beijing hospital room on Monday, Oct. 15. He was 89 years old. He leaves behind a controversial legacy defined by nationalist zeal and shifting allegiances, the latter of which unfortunately helped usher in the reign of the Khmer Rouge.
Sihanouk was born on Oct. 31, 1922, during a time when the French still ruled Indochina. As the son of King Norodom Suramarit and Queen Sisowath, Sihanouk received exemplary education in France, becoming fluent in French, Khmer and English.
After his grandfather, King Sisowath Monivong, passed away in 1941, Sihanouk, only a prince then, ascended the throne with the consent of the French, who thought that he could easily be manipulated. Unlike his predecessors, however, Sihanouk was an ardent proponent of Cambodian independence.
After the Second World War, Cambodia’s nationalist-independence movement gained momentum. Sihanouk led the charge, but threats to his life from the French forced him to flee to neighboring Thailand in May 1953. He returned shortly, however, after the French granted Cambodia full independence in the same year.
After the French left, Sihanouk steered Cambodia onto the path of political and economic development. Under his leadership, the agrarian sector grew, education flourished and Phnom Penh became an exotic tourist destination with its tropical climate and charming French architecture.
Notwithstanding, Sihanouk turned out to be as power-hungry as he was visionary. In 1955, he relinquished the kingship in order to become prime minister because the position granted far greater legislative and executive powers. Moreover, in 1963, he changed the constitution to allow him to remain head of state for life, occupying a position that, in effect, made him king all over again.
Sihanouk’s consolidation of power did not prepare him from the tumultuous events of the 1960s. When the Second War of Indochina erupted in Vietnam, Sihanouk tried to keep Cambodia out of the fray. This did not last, as Cambodia ended up supporting the communists in northern Vietnam at the behest of Mao Zedong’s People’s Republic of China.
In 1967, Sihanouk reneged on his leftist sympathies after China imploded as a result of the destabilizing Cultural Revolution. No longer beholden to the Chinese “big brother,” Sihanouk sought to purge insurgent communists in the northern province of Battambang, a region characterized by grand disparities in wealth between landowners and tenants. Sihanouk’s forces failed to crush the movement, leading to the Cambodian Civil War.
Weary of Sihanouk’s double-mindedness, Prime Minister Lon Nol, with the consent of the national assembly, staged a coup d’état in 1970.
Sihanouk sought refuge in Beijing and ironically began supporting the Khmer Rouge, a radical leftist faction led by Pol Pot. In Sihanouk’s eyes, anyone was preferable to the people who had ousted him.
With Sihanouk’s sponsorship, the Khmer Rouge grew exponentially, leading to overthrow of Lon Nol’s government in 1975. This marked the beginning of Cambodia’s three bloodiest years. Under the Khmer Rouge, an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians died from hunger, execution and torture while Sihanouk languished under house arrest in the Royal Palace (goo.gl/TIFSc). Once again, Sihanouk had gambled and lost to the detriment of his people.
In 1978, the Vietnamese liberated Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge. Sihanouk, again from the safety of exile, refused to acknowledge the Vietnamese puppet government and set up his own Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea (CGDK). Despite his best efforts at soliciting help from the United States, Sihanouk only played a peripheral role in Cambodian politics throughout the 1980s.
In 1989, the Vietnamese left the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) in the hands of Hun Sen, an ex-Khmer Rouge cadre who remains the strongman in power today. Recognizing Sihanouk’s popularity as national icon, Hun Sen reconciled with the CGDK and welcomed Sihanouk as the rightful king in 1993. Sihanouk’s powers, however, remained limited, and with his health failing, he appeared to be the washed-up politician he never seemed destined to become.
On Oct. 7, 2004, Sihanouk finally abdicated on account of failing health in the form of cancer, hypertension and diabetes. His son, Norodom Sihamoni, a former ballet dancer in France, took his place on Oct. 14. Unlike Sihanouk, Sihamoni is soft-spoken, lacking the vivacity and boundless energy that characterized his father.
Most Cambodians cannot imagine a world without Sihanouk. The older generation, especially, will remember him as a leader who wanted the best for Cambodia but failed, partly due to poor judgment, but also because he faced overwhelming historical odds. In politics, good timing is as important as good judgment.