A mercurial leader, Sihanouk switched alliances frequently in a bid to steer Cambodia clear of the Cold War storm
Norodom Sihanouk, Cambodia’s former king, who remained an influential figure through a tumultuous five decades of war, genocide and upheaval, died in Beijing at the age of 89 early yesterday. Sihanouk will be remembered as perhaps the most adaptable king in modern history.
Reigning over the country during its most turbulent period, Norodom witnessed its political transition from an absolute monarchy to a fledgling democracy.
A sharp wit and flamboyant style were the French-educated king’s weapons in the struggle to find accommodation with colonial France. He then helped forge a bloodless transition to independence in 1953, going on to make a stand against imperialism by forging alliances with newly independent countries throughout the world.
A confirmed nationalist, Sihanouk tried but failed to steer Cambodia away from the Cold War rivalry that was dividing Southeast Asia in the 1960s and ’70s, taking a neutral stance. When his country was invited by Thailand to become a founding member of Asean in 1967, he countered that Asean was an imperial tool. Ever the francophile, he also asked that the new organisation use French as its working language. The request was denied.
During the Cold War, Sihanouk was credited with modernising his country’s education system and re-establishing ties with the US and Europe, though he was determined that Cambodia be seen as independent and non-aligned.
He was one of Southeast Asia’s main players during the so-called Vietnam War, which spilled into Cambodia with devastating effect and eventually helped bring Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge to power. As he struggled to control a changing political scene, Sihanouk held numerous posts, including prime minister, president and leader of various governments in exile.
During the Cambodian civil war he backed the anti-Vietnamese coalition comprising the Khmer Rouge, his son Prince Norodom Ranariddh and former premier Son Sann.
For 13 years they fought alongside Asean to expel foreign troops occupying Cambodia. After striking an ill-fated deal with the Khmer Rouge, the exiled Sihanouk returned to Cambodia as head of state, but he remained confined to the palace for most of the four years of Khmer Rouge rule, when an estimated 1.7 million people died.
Sihanouk later condemned the Khmer Rouge for the genocide, which claimed the lives of several of his own children.
For years he shuttled back and forth between Cambodia and Thailand, working behind the scenes to bring a diplomatic solution to the conflict. Sihanouk’s mercurial character was ever-present at the negotiation table and he was a pivotal figure in talks that eventually brought peace in 1991. He was restored as the constitutional monarch following UN-sanctioned elections.
In 2004, suffering from diabetes and cancer, King Sihanouk abdicated his throne, making way for his son Sihamoni to take the helm. Like his father, the current king is seen as outgoing, artistic and approachable and likes to tour poverty-stricken rural Cambodia on fact-finding missions. He oversees state affairs but has no constitutional role in politics.
Sihanouk will be missed by the many ordinary Cambodians who respected – even cherished – his leadership. To the outside world he will be remembered as a leader who struggled to maintain Cambodia’s independence while forming alliances to protect it. He managed to avoid war with the US in the 1960s and ’70s, despite the battles raging across the border in Vietnam. He was, perhaps, unique as a leader who assumed so many roles while still managing to retain the aura of kingship.