Remembering Cambodia’s King

Sihanouk’s body arrived back in Cambodia on Wednesday afternoon where millions are grieving the death of their former king.

Throughout his life King Norodom Sihanouk loomed large on the world stage more so because his country — while tiny in size — had an extraordinary tendency to get entangled in Cold War power politics that continued until the last of Cambodia’s internal conflicts was extinguished in 1998.

Always controversial, his death on Monday in Beijing provided historians, journalists, politicians and former colleagues with a chance to resurrect nostalgic moments and the odd cliché while Sihanouk’s biographer Julio Jeldres was irritated by foreign publications he charged had failed to check their facts.

Writing on Facebook he said: “They write whatever props up without checking the historical record or doing proper research. What kind of human race have we become?”

Jeldres had a close and personal relation with the monarch whose political antics in the late 1960s — when IndoChina was being engulfed by war — resulted in a coup, hastening the arrival of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge and the deaths of two million Cambodians.

His life was perhaps best summed up by Elizabeth Becker and Seth Mydans writing in the New York Times who captured not only the eccentricities of Sihanouk’s personalities but also the complexities under which he had delivered Cambodia from Japanese occupation in World War II to independence from the colonial French, through the Vietnam War era and finally to an elusive peace.

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In summing-up they wrote: “Criticized throughout his life for these dramatic shifts in allegiances, King Sihanouk said he followed only one course in politics: ‘the defense of the independence, the territorial integrity and the dignity of my country and my people.’”

“In fact,” they continue, “he skillfully manipulated the great powers, usually with the support of China, to ensure his survival as well as his country’s independence. His worst nightmare, he said in an interview, was to be pushed out of his country’s political life into a quiet retirement, like Vietnam’s last emperor, Bao Dai, who died in obscurity in Paris in 1997.”

Of the historians who followed his life, two stand out. Milton Osborne, an Australian academic and author of Sihanouk Prince of Light, Prince of Darknesswrote an obituary under the heading “Death of a Survivor”: “Sihanouk's death will be greeted with genuine grief in Cambodia, particularly among the peasantry”. 

Meanwhile, David Chander, an American academic based at Monash University in Melbourne, said Sihanouk was a powerful link between ancient traditions and modern times.

"He brought Cambodia into the world, whereas the French had kept it cocooned and isolated for 90 years. But was also a figure of the old Cambodia," he said. 

Chandler also described Sihanouk’s legacy as mixed: “His principles were self-preservation and terrific patriotism. He made people feel that they were worthwhile and their country was worthwhile.”

This statement best explains Cambodians’ outpouring of grief by despite many being too young to remember the conflicts and hardships that their parents and grandparents had endured.

Sihanouk’s body arrived back in Cambodia Wednesday afternoon and will lie in state for three months once the official mourning period ends on October 23, during which time his memory will be tinged with nostalgia and a reverence if only for the many millions of Cambodians who genuinely believed their monarch was semi-divine.