March 12, 1970
Prince Sihanouk the Head of State of Cambodia had done his best to keep his country officially neutral. He allowed the Vietcong and North Vietnamese to use part of his country as a sanctuary while at the same time allowing the United States to bomb those sanctuaries. The commander of the army Lon Nol- objected to allowing the communist access to their sanctuaries. In early January the Cambodian army began shelling Communist positions. On March 12th, 1970 Lon Nol demanded that all communist troops leave Cambodia. Prince Sihanouk was outside the country and Lon Nol- overthrew him. With his return, Sihanouk threw his support to the communist Khmer Rouge. As a result, a full-fledged civil war developed in Cambodia.
Norodom Sihanouk, Cambodian Leader Through Shifting Allegiances, Dies at 89
Norodom Sihanouk, the charismatic Cambodian leader whose remarkable skills of political adaptation personified for the world the tiny, troubled kingdom where he was a towering figure through six decades, died early Monday in Beijing. He was 89.
The death was announced by Deputy Prime Minister Nhiek Bunchhay, quoted by news services. The former king had been dogged by ill health for years and regularly traveled to China for treatment.
King Sihanouk was crowned in 1941, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was president, and held on to some form of power for the next 60-plus years. He served as monarch, prime minister, figurehead of the Communist revolution, leader in exile, and once again as monarch until he abdicated in 2004. He handed the crown to one of his sons, Norodom Sihamoni, after which he was known as the retired king, or the king-father.
He survived colonial wars, the Khmer Rouge and the intrigues of the cold war, but his last years were marked by expressions of melancholy, and he complained often about the poverty and abuses of what he called “my poor nation.”
Alternately charming and ruthless, he dazzled world leaders with his political wit and, in the process, raised the stature of his small Southeast Asian nation. He won independence for Cambodia from the French colonial rulers in 1953, using diplomacy and repression to outmaneuver his domestic rivals but without resorting to war, as his neighbors in Vietnam had done.
He put his nation on a modern footing in the 1960s, especially bolstering the education system, but his Buddhist socialist agenda did poorly and produced economic stagnation.
When the Vietnam War threatened to engulf the region, he tried to carve out a neutral role for Cambodia, siding neither with the Communists nor the United States. But when the Vietnamese Communists began using the port of Sihanoukville and Cambodia’s eastern border to ship military supplies on what was known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail, he took steps to repair relations with the United States. He turned a blind eye when the Nixon administration undertook a secret bombing campaign in 1969 against the border area of Cambodia. But this only further unsettled his country and led to a coup that ousted him the next year.
Convinced that the United States had been behind the overthrow, King Sihanouk allied himself with the Khmer Rouge at the urging of his Chinese patrons, giving the Cambodian Communists his prestige and enormous popularity. Their victory in 1975 brought the ruthless Pol Pot to power, with King Sihanouk serving, for the first year, as the figurehead president until he was placed under house arrest and fell into a deep depression. Over the next four years, the Khmer Rouge regime led to the death of 1.7 million people and nearly destroyed the country.
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, 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.
Instead, King Sihanouk returned in 1993 as monarch and head of state after an accord brokered by the United Nations ended nearly 14 years of war in Cambodia.
Even in his darkest moments, the king never lost his flair for flamboyance or his taste for the finer things. As a young ruler and the scion of one of Asia’s oldest royal houses, he gained a well-deserved reputation as a playboy, a gourmand and an amateur filmmaker.
In his years in exile with his wife, Queen Monique, he kept his Cambodian movement alive by lavishly entertaining diplomats and foreign officials with Champagne breakfasts and elaborate French meals.
Denied any active role in government, he contented himself with the ceremonial position of king, still revered by many peasants.
Occasionally he interfered in politics. He undermined Prince Norodom Ranariddh, another son, by forcing him to accept a position as co-prime minister after winning the first postwar democratic election in 1993. Prince Ranariddh was ousted from that position in a coup by the other co-prime minister, Hun Sen, who became the country’s dominant power during King Sihanouk’s final years.
Norodom Sihanouk was born in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, on Oct. 31, 1922. A prince of the Norodom branch of the royal family, he was never considered a serious candidate to gain the throne. Instead, he was seen as a sensitive, if lonely, prince with a serious gift for music and, later, a passion for film.
He received a first-rate French education, initially at a primary school in Phnom Penh and then at the Lycee Chasseloup-Laubat in Saigon, the best in colonial Indochina. He was only 18 when King Monivong died in 1941 and the French colonial powers tapped him as the unlikely successor.
France had surrendered to Nazi Germany and was under Vichy control, worried that it would also lose its Indochinese colonies to Japan. The prince seemed the most malleable candidate, the one who would obey the dictates of French colonial officials.
For the first three years, King Sihanouk, a true Francophile, met all their expectations. As World War II engulfed Asia, he was a loyal partner of the French colonial administrators, who collaborated with Japan and hoped to fend off a nascent Cambodian independence movement.
In those early years, King Sihanouk seemed uninterested in government. He filled his days pursuing women and, in the tradition of his forebears, had several consorts who eventually bore him at least 13 children.
But in March 1945, as they were losing the war, the Japanese sought to oust the French in Cambodia. King Sihanouk stepped forward on the side of Japan and declared Cambodia the new independent state of Kampuchea. With Japan’s defeat, King Sihanouk welcomed back the French, largely ignoring the growing number of Cambodians who thought their country should remain independent.
By his own account, the king did not pick up the banner of independence again until 1951, using it to fend off challenges from democratic and Communist movements demanding an end to French colonialism.
Taking advantage of the increasing French weakness from Communist victories in neighboring Vietnam, King Sihanouk persuaded the French to make Cambodia independent in November 1953 in advance of the 1954 Geneva peace conference that led to a divided Vietnam.
Then in a cunning move, King Sihanouk announced he would give up the throne to run in his country’s first independent elections. Through a combination of repression, rigging and reliance on the votes of peasants who still considered him a god-king, his party swept the elections, and he set about creating Cambodia anew.
His brand of politics evolved into a one-party rule with some dissidents and rival parties pulled into his umbrella political party, the People’s Socialist Community. The towers of Angkor decorated the country’s new flag, one of the many ways that King Sihanouk used the massive temple complex at Angkor as a visible reminder that Cambodia was once the premier state and culture of the region.
He maintained strong ties to France, hiring French experts to help run his government and French teachers for his schools. In Phnom Penh, he nurtured a cafe society of intellectuals while he left the countryside in what he considered a more or less bucolic state but that was, in fact, a backward region of grinding poverty.
In contrast to its neighbors — Vietnam to the east, with its war, and Thailand to the west, with its disfiguring modern development and militarism — Cambodia appeared to be a welcome oasis throughout the 1960s, with now Prince Sihanouk presiding as charming, benevolent despot, treating his citizens like devoted children.
At the same time, he was imprisoning and sometimes executing opponents or driving others — notably the Communist leader Solath Sar, who would become Pol Pot — into exile and fueling discontent that fed growing political opposition and eventually armed insurrection.
Stories about King Sihanouk’s extravagance became a staple of the diplomatic circuit, especially as he turned his hand to his first loves — music and film. He entertained guests at his exclusive parties on his saxophone and embarked on a film career, eventually producing 19 movies for which he was director, producer, scriptwriter, composer and often leading man.
All the while he was head of state of a country increasingly squeezed by the Vietnam War. He took his place as one of the leaders of the nonaligned movement of newly independent nations — Egypt and India among them — hoping to emerge from poverty and avoid taking sides in the cold war. Yet he also accepted the outstretched hand of China, which was convinced that the United States posed a military threat to its borders.
Crystallizing Cambodia’s hopes for avoiding entanglement was a speech in 1966 by the French president, Charles de Gaulle, in Phnom Penh calling for the end of the Vietnam War and the neutrality of Indochina. He paid King Sihanouk the ultimate compliment by saying Cambodia and France were alike, with “a history laden with glory and sorrow, an exemplary culture and art, and a fertile land with vulnerable frontiers.” But the war would spill across Cambodia’s border.
With King Sihanouk’s acquiescence, the Vietnamese Communists used Cambodia for its logistics. When the Vietnamese sanctuaries expanded, he only mildly objected to the United States’s secret bombing of them. That bombing campaign was later cited in the articles of impeachment drawn up but never used against President Richard M. Nixon.
Despite the growing unrest in Cambodia, King Sihanouk was unprepared for his overthrow in 1970 by Prince Sirik Matak, a cousin, and Gen. Lon Nol. Supported by the United States, the new government immediately allowed American troops to invade Cambodia from Vietnam.
The invasion ignited protests around the world, including those at Kent State University in Ohio, where national guardsmen killed four students. After his ouster, King Sihanouk fled to Beijing, where Chinese leaders persuaded him to join forces with Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, the group of Cambodian Communists that had been seeking to overthrow him since the ’60s.
Although King Sihanouk had aggressively pursued the Khmer Rouge, arresting and often torturing them, he was so stung by the betrayal of the coup plotters that he agreed to head their resistance. His name and appearance in propaganda films and booklets helped the Communists recruit peasants in Cambodia and gave respectability to their cause in diplomatic circles. In the end, King Sihanouk helped bring Pol Pot to power.
The Khmer Rouge won in 1975 and immediately began a reign of terror. Cambodians were ordered out of the towns and cities and sent to grueling work camps and farms in the countryside. Cambodia was cut off from the rest of the world. Society was destroyed, with all religion and professions outlawed.
Intellectuals, monks and anyone deemed a political enemy were murdered. Tens of thousands of people died of treatable diseases, overwork or starvation.
King Sihanouk was the titular president during the first year of the Khmer Rouge rule. He said he had resigned a year later and was put under house arrest with his consort, Princess Monique, in one of the palaces. There he listened to world news on a radio and, he said, at times wanted to commit suicide.
He was rescued when the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and overthrew the Khmer Rouge in 1979. But rather than turn against Pol Pot, King Sihanouk went to the United Nations and defended him, saying the country’s enemy was Vietnam.
For the next 12 years, King Sihanouk provided a fig leaf of respectability for the Khmer Rouge as they and several non-Communist groups tried to evict Vietnam from Cambodia in the name of national liberation. The United States, China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations supported King Sihanouk, who maneuvered himself into a pivotal role in the final negotiations. Lined up against him, the Khmer Rouge and the rest of the resistance were Vietnam, the Soviet Union and Mr. Hun Sen, who was then the head of the Cambodian government established under the Vietnamese occupation.
With the end of the cold war, Cambodia was no longer hostage to great power politics. The United Nations negotiated a settlement to the war in 1991, and national elections were held two years later. King Sihanouk returned to Phnom Penh to a thunderous welcome, encouraging him to believe he could become a powerful chief of state once again. But other Cambodian politicians, including his own children, did not want him back in control.
A party led by Prince Norodom Ranariddh won the elections. Mr. Hun Sen’s party came in second the Khmer Rouge boycotted the elections. Furious that he had lost, Mr. Hun Sen and his surrogates threatened to reignite the war. King Sihanouk stepped in and persuaded the United Nations to create the position of co-prime minister for Mr. Hun Sen, effectively nullifying his son’s victory. However, King Sihanouk was returned to the throne and became king-father for the rest of his life.
Chastened, he maintained that he had been above the fray throughout, attempting to duplicate the role of national unifier played by King Bhumibol Adulyadej in neighboring Thailand.
But for the most part, King Sihanouk sided with Mr. Hun Sen, his political son. Toward the end of his life, the king reduced his once hectic travel schedule and rarely ventured outside Asia. Beijing, where the Chinese government maintained a villa for him, was his most frequent destination.
Michael Leifer, the Southeast Asia expert and professor at the London School of Economics who died in 2001, wrote that “the powerful myth of Sihanouk contributed to the people of Cambodia and the international community” repeatedly turning to him “as the font of national unity.”
He added: “The record of the man, however, would suggest a greater facility for reigning than for ruling. He has been more at home with the pomp and circumstance of government than with its good practice.”
The 50-year legacy
50 years ago on March 18 1970, Cambodia's Prince Norodom Sihanouk was overthrown in what is widely regarded a bloodless coup by military general Lon Nol. The tragic events that befell Cambodia in the decade after would go on to shape the Kingdom for generations, with the effects still visible to this day
Words by Samantha McCabe and Andrew Haffner
March 18, 2020 marks 50 years to the day that Prince Norodom Sihanouk was officially removed from his role as Cambodia’s head of state, displaced by his former prime minister and military general Lon Nol in what has become known in popular memory as a US-backed coup d’etat.
Arguably the single most consequential act of Cambodia’s 20th century history, the basic arc of events that followed in the decade after the 1970 overthrow have become well-known to most. But the legacy of this change in leadership is still unfolding to this day – with its full connection to Cambodia’s current political landscape seen in subtle parallels in terms of context and leadership.
French historian Henri Locard is aware that his narrative of this momentous shift in the country’s politics is contrary to the opinions of other experts, and even Wikipedia, but he asserts the events of March 18, 1970 should not be called a coup.
Locard, who has been in and out of the Kingdom since the early 1960s, and is now a professor in the history department at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, has long argued that several factors disqualify Nol’s takeover from that particular status.
“If you say that it is a coup d’etat, it has dramatic consequences,” Locard said. “It means that the Khmer Rouge were the legal holders of power from 1975 [because they toppled an illegitimate Lon Nol government], and they’re recognised by the United Nations until 1990. Which is absolutely preposterous.”
After his ouster from the government, Sihanouk, in exile in Beijing, declared his support for the nascent Khmer Rouge, then still a communist insurgency in the Kingdom’s rural north. In doing this, he became head of a Chinese-backed government-in-exile.
Back in Cambodia, Nol formed the Khmer Republic, an increasingly authoritarian military state devoted to stopping the communists and solidifying nationalist rule amidst the clash of powers unfolding in neighbouring Vietnam between North and South.
A lot of people today look back at the coup in the 1970s as the point where everything started to go wrong … It’s the point at which, the politics of unity that Sihanouk tried to maintain collapsed into a period of confrontationSebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia
The young republic proved unsuccessful on both fronts. Five years after he toppled Sihanouk, Nol himself was forced to flee the country before a wave of Khmer Rouge soldiers entered Phnom Penh in April 1975. From 1975 to 1979, the country was plunged into its national nightmare, and by the time the Khmer Rouge was in turn forced from power in January 1979 by Vietnamese troops, an estimated 1.5 to 2 million people had perished in what was then Democratic Kampuchea.
But unlike the military conquest of the Khmer Rouge, Locard argues, Lon Nol’s rise to power was constitutionally sound.
Sihanouk had been king of Cambodia from 1941 to 1955, at which point he abdicated the throne to his father, Norodom Suramarit, to serve in politics as a semi-civilian. Locard therefore points to a constitutional amendment – approved by the Cambodian National Assembly after Suramarit died in 1960 and backed by Sihanouk – that allowed for someone else to be chosen as the country’s leader if there was no clear successor for the king.
While there were other possible successors lined up when Sihanouk fell out of power in 1970, including the eldest son of former King Sisowath Monivong, the earlier amendment was used to justify Lon Nol’s new position as head of state. Secondly, though an overwhelming amount of violence followed in the years after, the 1970 shift in power was not marked by bloodshed and was in fact the result of a unanimous vote in the National Assembly to remove Sihanouk on March 18, 1970.
Regardless of the label given to what happened in 1970, it set in motion a series of events that have defined modern-day Cambodia.
For what it’s worth, Sebastian Strangio, author of political history Hun Sen’s Cambodia, accepts the description of Sihanouk’s replacement as a coup, adding that the upheaval paved the way for a long decline into the madness of the Khmer Rouge years.
“A lot of people today look back at the coup in the 1970s as the point where everything started to go wrong”, Strangio said. “It’s the point at which, the politics of unity that Sihanouk tried to maintain collapsed into a period of confrontation.”
The Sihanouk years are often looked upon as a “golden era” for Cambodia, when the newly independent country experienced a flourishing in the arts, much of which was funded by the king himself. But his rule was also under a one-party system dominated by the Sangkum, his broad-based coalition movement.
Strangio described Sihanouk’s hold on power as a “precarious balancing act” that used patronage, intimidation and outright violence to maintain an increasingly unstable peace between very different political ideologies on the right and left.Prince Norodom Sihanouk (c) and Hun Sen clasp hands while riding a motorcade from the Phnom Penh airport following the Prince’s arrival after 13 years in exile on November 14 1991. Photo: Dominique Faget/AFP
Beyond domestic tensions between opposing factions, Sihanouk’s ousting also came at a time when the tectonic plates of geopolitics were colliding in Southeast Asia. War in Vietnam was creeping over the border under Sihanouk’s watch, and much of Cambodia’s educated upper-crust had already become frustrated with the perceived deference to China shown by their head of state.
“Sihanouk was at the feet of Mao”, Locard argued. “All the Cambodian elite didn’t like that at all.”
When Sihanouk left for France in January of 1970, before the takeover, he rode unaccompanied to the airport, a rarity for royalty. He settled down in a modest French villa, a far cry from the lavish lifestyle he was used to, in the process of realising he was “going the wrong way with the cultural revolution” in Cambodia, as Locard describes his overemphasis on Chinese affairs.
When a Cambodian delegation travelled to visit him in France, he refused to even see them, issuing threats until they left the country.
I can tell you from when I was here in the mid-60s, it’s exactly the same picture as today with Hun SenHenri Locard, a Cambodia-based historian
Locard was in Cambodia at the time, and testifies to the palpable air of frustration among many people.
“Not just from what I read but from my experience, the situation was that Sihanouk had become very unpopular with the elite”, said Locard. “[But] he was still very popular in the countryside.”
In present day Cambodia, Hun Sen has received a fair deal of criticism, much of it from upper-class educated Cambodians, diaspora and expats for similar pro-China propensities – made even more crystalline by his response to coronavirus, during which he refused to stall flights and trade between Cambodia and Beijing at its outbreak.
This pro-China stance has brought significant economic value to Cambodia over the past decade, as China remains the country’s largest source of foreign direct investment – a staggering total of nearly $3.6 billion in 2018. But it has come at a cost, skewing perceptions of Hun Sen’s government both inside the country and on the international stage.
“I can tell you from when I was here in the mid-60s, it’s exactly the same picture as today with Hun Sen,” said Locard, explaining that the educated elite hold a similar resentment to the growing, dependence on a foreign power.
Strangio is also quick to compare Cambodian leaders past and present. He’s in the past drawn parallels between Hun Sen and Sihanouk, namely in the method of “rule with patronage, personality, using public address”, in addition to a certain proclivity to single-party rule backed by the threat – be it quiet or explicit – of violence.
If Hun Sen should follow a pattern of rule set long before him, Strangio follows, it would make sense that he would carefully study the lessons imparted by his predecessors.French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas (C) holds together the hands of Hun Sen (R) and Prince Norodom Sihanouk (L) before the start of peace talks in La Celle-Saint-Cloud, Paris on July 24, 1989. Photo: AFP
“In a way, this functions in contemporary politics as a reminder of what can go wrong,” Strangio said of the Lon Nol case study.
He added that, given its relevance both in the historic cycle of Cambodian governance and as one possible catalyst for the Khmer Rouge years, the event is used as a rhetorical tool by the current government that “looks back at the coup as the point which the country entered the abyss”.
The author said this is useful for the political establishment, to draw back on Cambodia’s history as laden with potential for violence and catastrophe as a warning against any political transition today.
While he deferred to Locard on matters of historical argument, Strangio didn’t necessarily believe the definition of whether it’s a coup or not mattered all that much.
Regardless of the parliamentary procedure used to remove Sihanouk, the upheaval caused by his sudden exit – and significantly his public call for resistance and endorsement of the communist insurgency – drove momentum for the Khmer Rouge that forever changed the course of Cambodian history.
“Regardless of what one calls it, if we’re looking at its [the toppling of Sihanouk] effects as a political event, it doesn’t change anything”, he said.
“The way the Hun Sen government is looking at it, the removal of [Sihanouk] from office, regime change, if you will – that precipitated all the horrible things that followed. Whether those things would have happened either way is something that’s impossible to know.”
No-one in the modern history of Southeast Asia has had such a continuous and lasting effect on the politics of their country than the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia. His cremation on 4 February in Phnom Penh brought to an end a career reaching back to his coronation on 3 May 1941. Since then, in one form or another – king, prime minister, head of government in exile, guerrilla leader, king again and finally King Father after he abdicated for the second time – Sihanouk bestrode Cambodian politics.
Sihanouk’s cremation was an extraordinarily lavish affair. Rumours circulating in Phnom Penh reported that the current Cambodian strongman, Hun Sen, was “shocked” by the spontaneous outpouring of grief by the hundreds of thousands of ordinary Cambodians who lined the processional route when Sihanouk’s body was returned from China, and concluded that his government would gain popular approval by giving the King Father a right royal send-off. Whether this is true or not, Hun Sen’s order to conduct a full-scale royal cremation sent officials to scour the archives to find out proper procedures. The whole ceremony thus became an occasion to restore and celebrate Khmer traditional culture. No expense was spared in constructing the five-storey high central Phra Meru (within which the body was burned) along with its surrounding gardens, pavilions, cloisters and walls – all of which will eventually be dismantled.
All the streets converging on the cremation site beside the palace were blocked off and people kept well away. But as invited VIPs left in their fleet of cars and night fell, the barriers were drawn aside and crowds surged into the open space in front of the palace to make offerings of flowers, burn incense, pray, or just sit quietly in groups remembering – what? What did Sihanouk represent for ordinary Cambodians? Judging by the documentary footage shown repeatedly on Cambodian TV channels, Sihanouk’s great achievements were gaining independence from France in 1953, and instituting a building program in the 1960s that converted Phnom Penh into a modern city. But there was surely more than that in the minds of those who mourned his passing.
For those in their 70s, the Sihanouk years are mostly remembered as an era of peace and prosperity before war and revolution tore the country apart. In idealised form, survivors have passed on this version of history to successive generations, a version reinforced by the horrors of the decade of civil war and Khmer Rouge tyranny that followed the removal of Sihanouk from power in 1970. For some the revival of the monarchy under United Nations auspices in 1993 and the return of Sihanouk to the throne was a powerful symbol, along with the re-emergence of Theravada Buddhism, of the survival of Cambodian culture and society in face of terrible adversity.
Most Cambodians are aware of, and proud of, their Angkorean heritage. Those with even limited education know the names of one or two of their great kings, if little else. As their direct descendant, Sihanouk connected them to a glorious past that anchors Cambodian identity in the present. Even the Khmer Rouge placed the outline of Angkor Wat on their national flag. For every Cambodian, it is the person of Sihanouk who represented the monarchy, even after he relinquished the throne to his son, Norodom Sihamoni – just as he continued to do after he placed his father on the throne in 1955. For abdication is a constitutional act that in the Theravada worldview in no way diminishes the store of merit that ensured royal birth in the first place. In fact it may increase merit, as for example, when a king steps down to become a monk. Sihanouk’s evident compassion for his people and concern for their welfare added to the store of his merit in the eyes of his people. The respect paid to Sihanouk by ordinary Cambodians was for his accumulated merit, which they believe ensures rebirth directly into one of the Buddhist heavens. Its basis, therefore, is identical to the respect shown for monks and nuns.
The question most frequently asked with Sihanouk’s passing has been where does this leave the Cambodian monarchy? Well, we shall see, though at present the institution does not seem to be under threat. But if we cannot peer into the future, we can look back at the past. The more interesting question to ask, therefore, concerns Sihanouk’s historical legacy. What have his years in politics bequeathed to his country?
Between his coronation in 1941 and his overthrow in 1970, Sihanouk made two decisions that were crucial not just for his personal career, but for the history of Cambodia. These were his decision to take the leading role in Cambodia’s struggle for independence from France, and his decision to abdicate in order to assume political leadership of the country. The first of these has been widely acclaimed by both Cambodians and historians, but its celebrated outcome exacerbated two persistent weaknesses in Sihanouk’s character – his craving for adulation and his conviction that he alone had the foresight, the wisdom, and yes, the semi-divine power that comes with the possession of great merit, to guide and develop (modernise) his country. Yet Cambodia would still have obtained independence from France without Sihanouk’s dramatic exodus to Angkor, though it is true that Sihanouk’s actions took the wind out of the sails of the so-called Khmer Vietminh, enabling Cambodia at Geneva in 1954 to escape division into separate areas of control for government and insurgent forces (as in Laos).
Sihanouk’s abdication and creation of his own political movement, the Sangkum Reastr Niyum , had by contrast a much more baleful effect on modern Cambodian history. Sihanouk had already shown himself to be no friend of democracy when in 1952, with French collusion he dismissed the popularly elected Democratic Party government, and jailed several DP leaders without trial. Those leaders were French-educated. For all their squabbles they admired French democracy. Sihanouk disliked the DP because it aimed to make Cambodia a constitutional monarchy, which would have relegated him to a largely ceremonial position. Parties further to the left were overtly republican, but particularly after 1953 they attracted limited popular support. Immediately upon independence Sihanouk could have used his considerable influence and stature to support multi-party democratic government. Instead he sought personal power.
The Sangkum masqueraded as a political party, but in reality it was an entirely different animal. Sihanouk built the Sangkum as a royal patronage network whose lofty purpose was to unify the country, but whose modus operandi was to eliminate all political opposition, or drive it underground, while concentrating power in the hands of Sihanouk as legitimate, if ex, king. The structure of the Sangkum derived from the ‘mandala’ model of the kings of Angkor, whose power rested on the loyalty of regional rulers and court officials, given in return for favours ascribed to the beneficence of the king in the form of delegated administrative authority and status. Educated urban Cambodians flocked to join the Sangkum to facilitate access to such benefits as government employment and contracts, entry to top schools and universities for their children, overseas scholarships, and useful contacts with government officials. Peasants supported the Sangkum because it was led by their meritorious king, though they got little in return.
As a political movement the Sangkum was remarkably successful. Elections were still held, but became formalities in which the Sangkum won up to 85 per cent of the vote. Such a degree of popular support fed Sihanouk’s craving for adulation and reinforced his conviction that his leadership was indispensable for the future of his country. If Sihanouk had a motto at this time, it surely was “Cambodge, c’est moi!” What was less apparent was that in establishing the Sangkum as a royal patronage network centred on himself, Sihanouk had sealed off the tiny window of opportunity that existed to create a modern democratic political order in Cambodia. Instead the Sangkum drew upon traditional Cambodian political culture to provide a model of how to concentrate and exercise political power.
Perhaps that small window of opportunity to create a democratic system in Cambodia that Sihanouk slammed shut in 1955 never really existed. Perhaps if political parties had been permitted freely to contest elections they would sooner or later have degenerated into rival patronage networks. What is certain, however, is that the very success of the Sangkum as a patronage network centred on Sihanouk as leader destroyed any possibility of instituting an alternative political order. All subsequent Cambodian leaders have applied the Sangkum model in consolidating their power.
Sihanouk used the power he gained from leadership of the Sangkum to pursue his vision for his country. That vision was of a modern Cambodia, proudly taking its place among the nations of the world. The symbols of that modernity were concentrated, however, almost entirely in Phnom Penh. Sihanouk set out to create a capital he could proudly display to international delegations and visiting heads of state. In this too he was following in the footsteps of Angkorean kings, particularly his favourite role model Jayavarman VII, who built the last great city of Angkor Thom. The boulevards, monuments, government buildings, universities, theatres and sports stadium that he built remain impressive architectural achievements for which Sihanouk will long be remembered.
Two other areas Sihanouk promoted were education and the arts. Phnom Penh came to boast seven universities, devoted to separate disciplines (medicine, law, fine arts, etc.), and a number of good secondary schools. Primary education came much lower on his list of priorities. Sihanouk had genuine compassion for the peasant families he rather disparagingly called his ‘children’, especially compared to subsequent Cambodian rulers, but did little to provide them with opportunities for economic or social advancement. Economic development was tied to government. The Sangkhum system did not promote entrepreneurship, but rather dependency on opportunities provided by working political connections.
Ironically, in the end it was the failure of tertiary education that was in large part responsible for Sihanouk’s political demise. Urban supporters of the Sangkum expected admission to universities for their children, irrespective of their abilities – and expected them to be awarded degrees. Standards fell as a result, and universities turned out graduates of poor quality in numbers too large to employ in government jobs. Avenues for advancement for the bright and ambitious were limited by the employment of the children of the politically well-connected. As popular dissatisfaction grew, Sihanouk turned to film making and the arts. For Sihanouk these were another arena to showcase Cambodian modernity, but in the process he took his eye off the political main game, and was destroyed by the weakness that makes all patronage systems inherently unstable – which is the ability of clients to shift their allegiance to another patron.
Sihanouk has been much lauded for his efforts to shield Cambodia from the war in Vietnam – and rightly so. But his commitment to neutrality and his activism within the non-aligned movement were not sufficient of themselves to insulate Cambodia from all repercussions of the Cold War – and Sihanouk knew it. So he used every means at his disposal: the media, open threats and denunciations, and secret agreements of the kind with Hanoi that guaranteed Cambodia’s borders and kept the Khmer Rouge on a leash in return for infiltration rights for Vietnamese guerrillas through Cambodian territory. At the same time his suspicion of the intentions of the Vietnamese communist regime, which he rightly believed would win the war, led him to build close relations with China as the only power with the capacity to keep Vietnam in check.
As a strategy this was remarkably perspicacious: Sihanouk foresaw likely developments in Indochina more clearly than anyone in Washington. This led him, however, to pursue a left-leaning neutrality that eventually led to a rift with the United States that deprived Cambodia of considerable US aid. This was an avoidable error on Sihanouk’s part. Neutrality works best when it is balanced, thus ensuring a competitive flow of aid from both sides. Breaking relations with Washington reinforced Sihanouk’s credentials in Beijing, but it deprived him of a significant source of projects and funds with which to ‘oil’ the Sangkum patronage network. The lack was felt most severely in the military. It would have required astute diplomacy to keep American aid flowing while currying favour with China. But it was not impossible, even under the prevailing circumstances. Relations were re-established after four years in 1969, but the damage had been done, and was an additional factor behind Sihanouk’s overthrow.
Sihanouk’s gravest error of judgment came in 1970 when he angrily responded to his removal from power by calling upon the people of Cambodia to join with the Khmer Rouge to overthrow those who had deposed him. Sihanouk acted out of hurt pride, and his egotistical belief that he alone could lead Cambodia. So blinded, he misread the situation that was unfolding, and entirely failed to understand how his action would affect his people. With Sihanouk removed, his tacit agreement with North Vietnam collapsed. Hanoi not only unleashed the Khmer Rouge, but poured in support for the insurgency – just as Sihanouk’s call to arms massively increased recruitment to the revolutionary cause.
Did Sihanouk really think that from exile in Beijing he could control the course of events in Cambodia? If so, he was delusional. Despite his friendly relations with Chinese leaders, he had always distrusted and repressed the revolutionary left inside Cambodia. Was he so ill-informed that he only realised the true nature of the Khmer Rouge once he returned to Cambodia to become their prisoner at the end of 1975? His resignation in April 1976 as titular head of what was by then the KR regime left him under palace arrest and vulnerable. That he survived the KR years was thanks to his Chinese friends.
The Vietnamese invasion that overthrew the Khmer Rouge at the end of 1979 realised Sihanouk’s worst fears: Cambodia effectively became part of an Indochinese union dominated by Vietnam. This time backed by an unholy de facto alliance between the US, ASEAN and China, Sihanouk once again found himself in coalition with the Khmer Rouge – though this time leading his own separate guerrilla force. There was no alternative, as he explained to journalists in his engaging trademark way, with Gallic shrug, upturned palms, and perplexed expression, plaintively asking: “What could Sihanouk do?”
When Vietnamese forces finally withdrew a decade later, and the United Nations moved in, Sihanouk found himself in the position he had so determinedly refused to accept forty years before: that of constitutional monarch. But democracy in the new Kingdom of Cambodia was almost bound to fail. To begin with there was no precedent. No-one except perhaps Sihanouk himself remembered that brief period of democratic government installed under the French that the Sangkum had effectively destroyed. After Sihanouk had been overthrown, Cambodia had had one military and two single-party governments, all of which concentrated power at the apex of a hierarchical organisation that brooked no political opposition. A combination of coercion and fear kept members in line and loyal to the leadership.
From the point of view of Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), the imposition of multi-party democracy in 1993 threatened their hold on power. The election result giving a narrow victory to Prince Ranarridh’s FUNCINPEC Party was perceived not as an expression of the hopes and desires of the Cambodian people, but as a call to political struggle. The CPP response was not to formulate more appealing policies, but to extend the tentacles of its social power. And its model of how this should be done was the Sangkum. The CCP set out to build a patronage network that would draw in clients through the lure of promised benefits for them and their extended families. But for this strategy to work the Party needed the wherewithal to buy client loyalty. At the same time FUNCINPEC was building its own rival patronage network, also modelled on the Sangkum, though Ranarridh was no Sihanouk. Real political competition, therefore, was not for votes, but for control over resources – in the form not only of exploitable natural resources such as timber and minerals, but also government revenues and the perks associated with foreign aid. The outcome over time was pervasive corruption – and victory for the CPP.
The CCP is not organised as and does not function as a Marxist party modelled on the Chinese or Vietnamese communist parties. Its exemplar is the Sangkum. Hun Sen does not exercise power as Chinese or Vietnamese leaders do, by virtue of the offices they hold within their respective parties, but because of his position at the apex of a vast patronage network. Hun Sen will not be deposed by a vote at a CCP congress. The only way he could lose power is through the erosion of client loyalty and their ultimate defection to alternative patrons – just as happened to Sihanouk.
Hun Sen has been the most successful Cambodian political leader over the last twenty years in large part because he modelled himself closely on Sihanouk, even down to how he comports himself in public. Sihanouk owed his political status to his birth and his achievement of independence from France Hun Sen can only advert to his role in freeing Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge through alliance with Vietnam. He has therefore had to rely more on greasing the strings of patronage. This is why it took so long to pass an anti-corruption law, which is in any case ineffective. It was passed to ensure the continuation of foreign aid (so avoiding Sihanouk’s mistake), which is necessary if revenue is to be freed up for patronage. The patronage network that keeps Hun Sen in power has produced massive maldistribution of wealth, most of which has been concentrated in Phnom Penh, plus a few regional centres like Siem Reap. Few resources have trickled out to rural areas, not even for basic health care or primary education, because too much revenue gets siphoned off into private pockets.
This is unlikely to change while Hun Sen maintains his patronage network in place. Like the monarchy (or North Korea), Hun Sen reportedly wants his position to become hereditary, to be handed on to one of his sons. This makes even more evident the extent to which Hun Sen has taken Sihanouk and the Sangkum as his political paradigms. Sihanouk’s lasting legacy, one can only conclude, has been the system of government Cambodia currently enjoys.
Norodom Sihanouk (1922-2012) was a pivotal figure in Cambodia during and after the Vietnam War. At various times he served as Cambodia’s king, head of state and elected prime minister.
A descendant of the Angkor emperors, Sihanouk was born Prince Norodom in Phnom Penh in October 1922. Like others of the Indochinese elite, he received a French education, first in Phnom Penh and later in Saigon and Paris.
Sihanouk became king in 1941 after the death of his grandfather King Monivong. The French colonial regime believed that Sihanouk, like his predecessors, would be easy to manipulate. Instead, he proved a cunning political operator who facilitated greater autonomy and set Cambodia on the path to independence.
Sihanouk was an intelligent and charismatic figure given to egotism, high living and womanising. He was fond of Western culture, particularly film and music, and occasionally sang Elvis Presley ballads at state dinners.
Sihanouk wanted a free and independent Cambodia. He was a political progressive who sought social and economic reforms to benefit his people. Under Sihanouk’s leadership, Cambodia was granted independence from France in 1953. In 1955, Sihanouk took the unprecedented step of abdicating the throne and standing for election as the country’s prime minister. Sihanouk won this election comfortably, a measure of his enormous popularity with the Cambodian people.
As the nation’s democratic leader, Sihanouk decided that his first priority was to keep Cambodia at peace and prevent it from being drawn into the quagmire of Cold War politics and conflict.
Sihanouk’s attempts to maintain peace were thwarted by the activities of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army (NVA), both of whom used Cambodia’s eastern provinces for training, respite and supply dumps. This focused American attention on Cambodia and its leader.
Sihanouk had a problematic relationship with the United States. Washington had given only lukewarm support to Cambodian independence. Between 1955 and 1963 Cambodia received almost $US500 million in US economic and military aid, while the CIA actively supported Sihanouk’s rivals. Fed up with American pressure and meddling, Sihanouk refused further American aid in late 1963, and in April 1965 he cut diplomatic ties with Washington. This move caused friction between Sihanouk and Cambodia’s conservatives, particularly General Lon Nol, a pro-Western military commander.
Norodom Sihanouk towards the end of his life
In March 1970, while Sihanouk was visiting China, Lon Nol seized control of the Cambodian government. From exile, Sihanouk called on Cambodians to resist the US-backed military coup. He returned to Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge victory in April 1975. Sihanouk became a captive figurehead under the Khmer Rouge. He remained under virtual house arrest in his Phnom Penh quarters, while many of his family members were executed by the Khmer Rouge.
When Vietnamese forces invaded in 1979, Sihanouk was again forced into a much longer exile, living for more than a decade in China and North Korea. He returned to Cambodia in 1991 and was restored as king and head of state in 1993. Sihanouk’s son, Norodom Ranariddh, also served as prime minister of Cambodia during the 1990s.
Sihanouk abdicated and retired from official duties in 2004 and died eight years later.
Head of Stratfor, ‘Private CIA’, Says Overthrow of Yanukovych Was ‘The Most Blatant Coup in History’Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, looks back at US President Barack Obama, left, as they arrive with Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, at the the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit.(Credit: AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
In a December 19th interview in the Russian magazine Kommersant, George Friedman, who is the Founder and CEO of Stratfor, the ‘Shadow CIA’ firm, says of the overthrow of Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych that occurred on February 22nd of 2014: “It really was the most blatant coup in history.” Perhaps he is saying this because of the videos that were uploaded to the Web which showed it to be so, but this statement by him contradicts the description that is asserted by the U.S. White House and the European Union, and the Western press, which description is that Yanukovych’s overthrow was instead just the result of the U.S. Government’s $5+ billion expense since 1991 to establish ‘democracy’ in Ukraine.
Friedman further says that “The Russian authorities can not tolerate a situation in which western armed forces will be [in Ukraine] a hundred kilometers from Kursk or Voronezh [in Russia]”, and that the goal of the U.S. is to “maintain the balance of power in Europe, helping the weaker party,” which he says is Europe. He furthermore says, “The United States considers the most dangerous potential alliance to be between Russia and Germany. This would be an alliance of German technology and capital with Russian natural and human resources.” So: the U.S. is trying to antagonize Germans against Russia. This will weaken both of them. However, that would be not a “balance of power” but an increasing imbalance of power in favor of the United States. The Russian interviewer failed to catch his inconsistency on that.
Friedman was consistent with the U.S. Government’s line that Russia is a threat to the U.S. he said: “No American president can afford to sit idly by if Russia becomes more and more influential.” He said that this is especially the case in the Middle East, and regarding Syria. But he then clarified himself, “I’m not saying that Russia’s intervention in the Syrian conflict was the cause of the Ukrainian crisis, it would be a stretch.” Regarding Ukraine, he said: “The bottom line is that the strategic interests of the United States are to prevent Russia from becoming a hegemon. And the strategic interests of Russia are not to allow the US close to its borders.” He avoided even to mention the United States as possibly being a “hegemon” itself, one which is trying, along with its NATO allies, to crush Russia for its resisting America’s hegemony – that is, global dominance by America’s aristocracy.
President Obama had something to say about this very question when speaking at West Point on May 28th and asserting (with loaded anti-Russian assumptions and false outright allegations): “Russia’s aggression toward former Soviet states unnerves capitals in Europe, while China’s economic rise and military reach worries its neighbors. From Brazil to India, rising middle classes compete with us. … The United States is and remains the one indispensable nation. That has been true for the century passed [sp.: past [[somebody at the White House didn’t even know the difference between ‘past’ and ‘passed’ and still don’t, six months afterward]] and it will be true for the century to come.” So: The U.S. President was telling West Point’s graduating cadets that the U.S. is the only hegemon and will stay that way for at least a hundred years. This was their marching-order, from the U.S President himself, their own Commander-in-Chief, representing America’s aristocracy (in this alleged ‘democracy’), for whom they will fight and kill, and, some of them, perhaps even die, or else become crippled for life.
Friedman closed by saying, “Russia will not make concessions in the Crimea, this is obvious. But I believe that it could face serious problems with supplies to the peninsula. Yet Moscow cannot retreat from some of its requirements with regard to Ukraine. It cannot be allowed that Western military appear in Ukraine. This is a nightmare in Moscow. … This is already happening, slowly but occurs. And it will be something that Russia does not accept … The US is not aiming that you need to have control over Ukraine, but that it is important that it is not controlled by Russia.” Here he was repeating his idea that America isn’t seeking to achieve advantage over Russia – that the U.S. has no hegemonic intentions, just “balance of power,” notwithstanding the Commander-in-Chief’s charge, months earlier, to his troops, for them to extend America’s hegemony another century.
He said that this overthrow in Ukraine was a coup aimed against Russia, but then he closed with this statement that Russia is hegemonic but that the U.S. is not, which contradicts it.
Apparently, Mr. Friedman was nervous about losing U.S. Government business by being too honest, but he had already been too honest about the coup, and his self-contradictions didn’t help him at all. Perhaps he believed that the vast majority of people can be fooled, as Americans were about “Saddam’s WMD” and still are about “torture aimed at finding truth,” none of which ever was true, but all of which the aristocracy wanted people to believe to be true. Their rule seems to be: Fools never learn, it’s what they are and will continue to be, no matter how often they’ve been fooled in the past. Perhaps George Friedman was relying on this rule. But why then did he say things that are true but that his paymasters say are not? Might this ‘intelligence expert’ not be intelligent after all? If so, he has fooled the U.S. Government into thinking that he is: he’s succeeded.
Here is an attempt to address the same issues that Friedman did, but without internal contradictions.
UPDATE: On 17 January 2015, the first English translation of this entire interview was posted to the Web, and it’s here .
Cambodian Civil War - Overthrow of Sihanouk (1970) - NUFK and RGNUK
From Beijing, Sihanouk proclaimed that the government in Phnom Penh was dissolved and his intention to create the Front Uni National du Kampuchea or NUFK (National United Front of Kampuchea). Sihanouk later said "I had chosen not to be with either the Americans or the communists, because I considered that there were two dangers, American imperialism and Asian communism. It was Lon Nol who obliged me to choose between them."
The North Vietnamese reacted to the political changes in Cambodia by sending Premier Phạm Văn Đồng to meet Sihanouk in China and recruit him into an alliance with the Khmer Rouge. Saloth was also contacted by the Vietnamese who now offered him whatever resources he wanted for his insurgency against the Cambodian government. Saloth and Sihanouk were actually in Beijing at the same time but the Vietnamese and Chinese leaders never informed Sihanouk of the presence of Saloth or allowed the two men to meet. Shortly after, Sihanouk issued an appeal by radio to the people of Cambodia to rise up against the government and support the Khmer Rouge. In May 1970, Saloth finally returned to Cambodia and the pace of the insurgency greatly increased. After Sihanouk showed his support for the Khmer Rouge by visiting them in the field, their ranks swelled from 6,000 to 50,000 fighters.
The prince then allied himself with the Khmer Rouge, the North Vietnamese, the Laotian Pathet Lao, and the NLF, throwing his personal prestige behind the communists. On 5 May, the actual establishment of NUFK and of the Gouvernement Royal d'Union Nationale du Kampuchea or RGNUK (Royal Government of National Union of Kampuchea), was proclaimed. Sihanouk assumed the post of head of state, appointing Penn Nouth, one of his most loyal supporters, as prime minister.
Khieu Samphan was designated deputy prime minister, minister of defense, and commander in chief of the RGNUK armed forces (though actual military operations were directed by Pol Pot). Hu Nim became minister of information, and Hou Yuon assumed multiple responsibilities as minister of the interior, communal reforms, and cooperatives. RGNUK claimed that it was not a government-in-exile since Khieu Samphan and the insurgents remained inside Cambodia. Sihanouk and his loyalists remained in China, although the prince did make a visit to the "liberated areas" of Cambodia, including Angkor Wat, in March 1973. These visits were used mainly for propaganda purposes and had no real influence on political affairs.
For Sihanouk, this proved to be a short-sighted marriage of convenience that was spurred on by his thirst for revenge against those who had betrayed him. For the Khmer Rouge, it was a means to greatly expand the appeal of their movement. Peasants, motivated by loyalty to the monarchy, gradually rallied to the NUFK cause. The personal appeal of Sihanouk, the overall better behavior of the communist troops, and widespread allied aerial bombardment facilitated recruitment. This task was made even easier for the communists after 9 October 1970, when Lon Nol abolished the loosely federalist monarchy and proclaimed the establishment of a centralized Khmer Republic.
Norodom Sihanouk dies at 89 former king of Cambodia
Former King Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia, an unpredictable and crafty political survivor whose fortunes were entwined with U.S. military involvement in Indochina, died Monday of natural causes in Beijing, where he had undergone medical treatment, Chinese state media reported. He was 89.
Sihanouk had various forms of cancer, diabetes and hypertension and had sought medical care in China since 2004, when he abdicated in favor of his son due to old age and health problems. He died two weeks short of his 90th birthday.
“This is a great loss for Cambodia. We feel very sad. The former king was a great king who we all respect and love,” Cambodia’s Deputy Prime Minister Nhik Bun Chhay was quoted as telling the New China News Agency.
The news agency said reigning King Norodom Sihamoni, Sihanouk’s son, will fly to Beijing to retrieve the body and return it to Cambodia for a traditional funeral.
Long a symbol of Cambodian nationalism and independence, Sihanouk reigned more than he ruled. But for nearly 60 years, his name was synonymous with the tortured history of his sad land. He was, by any yardstick, one of Southeast Asia’s most colorful and legendary statesmen.
The portly Sihanouk, who had four wives and countless mistresses over his long career, was as much a hedonist as a political operative. He was vain, manipulative and whiny, his soprano voice a singsong of French and English as he uttered declarations and cut deals to play foreign powers against each other.
During the Vietnam War, Sihanouk leaned toward the Communists, anticipating their victory. He cut ties to Washington in 1965 to protest the U.S. military buildup in Vietnam but let U.S. and South Vietnamese forces conduct secret incursions into Cambodia to disrupt the supply lines that Sihanouk had allowed the Communists to set up.
Sihanouk was born Oct. 31, 1922, to Norodom Suramarit and Kossamak Nearireath. He was educated in Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City, and Paris, and ascended to the throne in 1941 at the age of 18, after the death of his uncle, the king. He was the handpicked choice of colonial France, which believed he would be the most malleable of the royal pretenders.
But 12 years later he went into “voluntary exile” to protest French imperialist control, creating so much international pressure that in 1953 the French government granted Cambodia the independence he sought. In 1955, Sihanouk abdicated in favor of his father to pursue political power free from royal constraints. He set up the Popular Socialist Community party, which within months had captured all the seats in the National Assembly.
Sihanouk loved center stage. He called the Cambodians “my children” and would receive virtually any commoner who wanted to complain about the price of seed or comment on an irrigation project. At night he might entertain dignitaries and diplomats at his palace with a champagne banquet and a moonlight performance of the Royal Ballet.
His guests never knew what to expect. At one banquet he grabbed the microphone, went to his knees and sang the Frank Sinatra standard “My Way.” Another time he insisted that Richard H. Solomon, a U.S. assistant secretary of State, sing “Happy Birthday” to him — which an embarrassed Solomon did. Sihanouk also made amateur films of love stories and mysteries, in which he was star, director, writer and narrator. Guests sometimes had to sit for hours watching them.
“It is like Shakespeare, n’est-ce pas?” he asked after one screening.
Sihanouk spent much of the 1960s trying to maintain Cambodia’s neutrality, and his desire to keep his country out of the Indochina conflict set him on a collision course with U.S. officials, who often were publicly disdainful of him. One ambassador, Robert McClintock, while opening a U.S.-sponsored maternity clinic, turned to the prince at the ceremony and said, “This should particularly interest you as a great one-man manufacturer of babies.”
Sihanouk would regret his 1965 decision to sever diplomatic ties with the United States. Without U.S. aid, the Cambodian economy rapidly deteriorated, sowing seeds of political instability. To compensate and gain leverage with Washington, he turned to Beijing. Chinese Premier Chou En-lai visited Cambodia in 1968 while the Vietnam War raged across the border.
By then, Cambodia had become a major staging area for North Vietnamese troops. In 1969, President Nixon ordered secret B-52 airstrikes against the Communist camps and supply lines. The next year, on April 30, U.S.-led allied forces began overt incursions into Cambodia, drawing the kingdom into the war and fueling antiwar protests in the United States.
Sihanouk, who ruled as an autocrat, crushing dissent and closing newspapers, was on a trip to Moscow in 1970 when he was overthrown by his U.S.-backed minister of defense, Lon Nol. Sihanouk, who firmly believed that Washington had masterminded the coup, went to Beijing in exile after he was sentenced to death in absentia by Lon Nol’s regime. The Chinese treated Sihanouk royally, providing a mansion, nine servants and a $300,000-a-year allowance.
In Beijing, Sihanouk aligned himself with Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, who were fighting to overthrow Lon Nol. Sihanouk was not comfortable with the relationship but wanted to keep his name at the forefront of Cambodian affairs. In a visit to the United Nations with Khmer Rouge officials, Sihanouk tried to pass a message appealing for help to an FBI agent in a New York elevator. The agent, mistakenly thinking he was being tipped, wouldn’t take the note.
Sihanouk returned to Phnom Penh in 1975, after the Khmer Rouge’s peasant army had taken control of Cambodia. But the prince and his wife, Monique, were placed under house arrest in his palace by Pol Pot. Only personal intervention by Chou, the Chinese premier, saved them from execution, diplomats said.
Between 1975 and 1979, when Pol Pot was overthrown by invading Vietnamese troops, the Khmer Rouge killed more than 1 million people, including 14 members of Sihanouk’s family. In 1979, the Chinese evacuated Sihanouk to Vietnam, where he held a six-hour news conference to denounce both the Vietnamese and the Khmer Rouge.
His country now occupied by the Vietnamese, Cambodia’s long-standing enemy, Sihanouk became a worldly wanderer once more. He divided his time between China and North Korea, where he developed a close friendship with late leader Kim Il Sung. Sihanouk returned to Cambodia occasionally in the ensuing years, issuing contradictory and confusing declarations, but a generation of warfare had devastated the Cambodian economy, destroyed its political infrastructure and spiritually crippled its people.
The United Nations spent $2.6 billion and sent 26,000 troops to Cambodia in the early 1990s to prepare for the return of democracy. When the mission, an apparent success, ended in September 1993, Sihanouk startled the world by returning to Phnom Penh and reclaiming the crown he had given up 38 years earlier. It was, Asian scholars said, one of the great political comebacks of the 20th century.
“What I want is not to become king again,” Sihanouk said. “In my opinion, the greatest honor, the greatest reward that the nation, that history can offer me is to be the father of the nation, the father of independence, the father of peace, the father of democracy and genuine freedom. I am not at all seeking a reward in being crowned. The crown is very heavy, you know. It hurts your head.”
Sihanouk’s son, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, whom the king always considered weak and indecisive, became prime minister after the 1993 general elections. But Ranariddh was overthrown in July 1997 by a former Khmer Rouge, Hun Sen, who had muscled his way into a position as co-prime minister. More instability, bloodshed and economic ruin followed.
Sihanouk, ailing with prostate cancer, spent most of his last years in Beijing. His people continued to revere him as a god-king in the 1,000-year tradition of the Angkor Empire—the monarchy was, after all, the only institution they were still able to believe in — but Sihanouk seemed increasingly distant and depressed by the belief that every national aspiration he had worked for failed.
“If I was not a Buddhist, I would commit suicide because the end of my life is full of shame, humiliation and desperation of the national order,” he said in late 1997.
“In a blossoming Asia . . . we are the only oasis of war, insecurity, self-destruction, poverty, social injustice, arch-corruption, lawlessness, national division, totalitarianism, drug trafficking and AIDS.”
Lamb is a former Times staff writer.
Times staff writer Barbara Demick in Beijing contributed to this report.
The war was sparked by a disagreement between the neutral administration of King Sihanouk, the head of state, and the serving Prime Minister Lon Nol. Political tension and economic instability in the capital city Phnom Penh was piling pressure on rural communist communities. The Prime Minister Lon Nol decided to impose higher revenues on rice, a move that saw the landowners in Battambang initiate an insurgency that quickly developed into a revolt against the government. In a few months, 11 of the 18 provinces of Cambodia were revolting against the government under the umbrella of communism.
Sihanouk Calls Overthrow Illegal and Asks for Vote
PEKING, March 20 (Agence France‐Presse) — Prince Noro dom Sihanouk said here today that his overthrow as Chief of State of Cambodia was “ab solutely illegal.” He called for a referendum in Cambodia under the auspices of the In ternational Control Commission —composed of Canada, India, and Poland—set up in 1954 to supervise the Geneva cease fire agreements that ended the French Indochina war.
In a statement issued here, he said the “turbulence” in Cambodia had been created by the group that staged the coup and the United States Central Intelligence Agency.
“I cannot he dismissed from the office of Supreme Magis trate except by the nation as a whole,” he said. “That is to say, by a national referendum whose validity cannot be con tested.”
“However, at the present time and until the return to a state of constitutional regular ity, any referendum organized by a traitorous and perjurious government would have no value.
Talks With Chinese Continue
“I solemnly declare that I am ready to hear the verdict of the nation as a whole, pro vided that confrontation with my enemies of the extremes right and referendum following this confrontation are guaran teed as regards security of per sons, and as regards validity of votes.”
Meanwhile, talks between Chinese leaders and Prince Si hanouk which began shortly after his arrival here yester day, went into their second day, apparently at a lower level.
Prince Sihanouk met Premier Chou En‐Lai, immediately aft er flying in from Moscow.
On the basis of a dispatch by Hsinhua, the Chinese press agency, it appeared that a Dep uty Premier, Li Hsien‐nien, and Wu Fa‐hsien, the Deputy Chief of Staff, represented China and Pen Nouth, Prince Sihanouk's personal adviser, and Gen. Ngo Hou, his technical adviser, were the Cambodian officials at the talks today.
The talks have been sur rounded by tight secrecy and nothing is likely to be dis closed until they have been completed.
Prince Sihanouk was initial ly scheduled to leave China for home by way of Shanghai next Tuesday. Bookings for the Prince and his party were made with Air France before the coup in Pnompenh. This morn ing, Prince Sinahouk's plans still seemed to be unclear.
Plans Speculated On
But it was thought here that he might return to France if it proved impossible for him to enter Cambodia. He might go there directly or via Moscow, for a new round of talks with Soviet leaders, whom he saw last week before the Cambodian coup. He was about to leave Moscow for Peking when he re ceived news of the coup.
There are indications that he was not met with as much un derstanding on the part of the Soviet side as he had expect ed. Some analysts, in social ist countries and elsewhere, considered it possible that Prince Sihanouk might have been involved in some way in the demonstration in Pnompenh against North Vietnam and the Vietcong's provisional revolu tionary government that pre ceded the coup.
Prince Sihanouk's statement said:
“My deposition pronounced by the National Assembly and the Council of the Kingdom of Cambodia is absolutely illegal, for the following reasons.
“I was appointed Head of State in 1960 by Parliament (unanimously) in conformity with the kingdom's Constitu tion. It is therefore absolutely false to pretend, as have cer tain members of the National Assembly, that I was granted the office of Supreme Magis trate of the state by simple popular acclaim.
“On the other hand, there is in our Constitution—even in the latest amendments prior to they anticonstitutional coup d'état of this month, March, 1970, perpetrated at Pnom penh by the extreme right wing—no pro vision allowing Parliament and the Government to depose the Head of State, who is implicitly appointed for life.”
Prince Sihanouk said that the referendum “should be guaran teed by the presence—accepted by both opposing parties—of an armed contingent sent to Cam bodia for this sole purpose by India, Canada and Poland in the framework of the International Control Commission.”
On Oct. 9, 1969, Prince Sihanouk said, that Cambodia wanted the International Con trol Commission to leave Cam bodia by Dec. 31. He added later that Cambodia was unable any longer to pay her share of the commission's expenses.