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Sihanouk: A unique voice falls silent

Publication Date : 17-10-2012


In Beijing in the spring of 1979, as China under its new leader Deng Xiaoping emerged from Maoism's long winter, the inconceivable jostled for space daily with the improbable.

Here and there a young woman in colourful clothing relieved the familiar blue or khaki monotony of the street scene. The People's Daily railed against such long-term friends as Vietnam and spoke almost warmly of Washington - well, of some Americans.

But the season's most memorable event was a party thrown by Prince Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia and his beautiful Eurasian consort, Princess Monique. Images from that evening will always accompany my memories of this singular Asian monarch and politician, who died in Beijing on Monday, October 15.

Less than three months before the 1979 party, the couple had been confined to house arrest in Cambodia by the monstrous Pol Pot, leader of the Khmer Rouge, the country's unimaginably ruthless communist rulers. Saved by a Chinese airliner from imminent capture by an invading Vietnamese army, the Sihanouks were making their temporary home in Beijing.

The Khmer lunar new year arrives in April. That was the party's stated reason. But the guests all recognised it for what it really was - a coming-out celebration for two released prisoners. And for the Chinese guests, all very senior cadres, the evening also offered the best reason to escape from the Cultural Revolution's bleak anti-Western disciplines.

My wife and I, then living in Hong Kong, had been invited because I had co-authored a book on Pol Pot's ruinous rule. The Sihanouks had learnt of the horrors beyond their villa-prison by listening to Radio Hanoi's broadcasts of excerpts from the book.

During the 41/2 years in which the Khmer Rouge were in power, 1.2 million or more Cambodians, including five of Sihanouk's children and 14 grandchildren, had died - victims of extreme Maoist policies.

Many of the diplomats and foreign correspondents among the guests that night had been eyewitnesses to the country's shocking travail. We had watched the Khmer people endure civil war, massive US bombing, the Khmer Rouge victory, followed by Pol Pot's autogenocide. All but insufferably, the Vietnamese, long the Khmers' most disliked neighbour, had finally rescued the nation.

Guests arriving at Sihanouk's party were greeted by the sight of the once and future god-king singing from a stage the lusty words of "Passion", a love song of his own composition.

Accompanying him was the Beijing Opera Orchestra, its conductor incongruously rattling rhumba gourds: "My love burns for you/I love you to distraction/Let us be carried away/On a sea of passion…"

Giggling infectiously, Sihanouk confided to some of us bystanders his secret ambition: "If I had not been a king, I would have been a crooner."

Until recently any Chinese caught dancing Western style risked a lengthy term in a Qinghai salt mine. But we watched in astonishment that night as the Chinese foreign minister and his wife managed a very capable fox trot.

The guest list displayed Sihanouk's capacity to forgive. US embassy spokesman William Stubbs was at our table. In the 1960s, when he had been in the Phnom Penh embassy, the king had denounced him by name on the radio. Bill had narrowly escaped a band of Sihanoukist thugs who had declared their intention of hanging him with his own necktie.

In his 89 years on Earth, Norodom Sihanouk played many roles - always with passion, if not always with success.

He was king, god-king, the French colonialists' and Japanese imperialists' puppet and then their deadly enemy, Washington's and Hanoi's sometimes friend, sometimes foe. He was a poet and playwright, songwriter, movie producer and chef.

The Guinness Book of World Records identifies him as the occupant of the world's greatest variety of political offices: two terms as king, two as sovereign king, one as president, two as prime minister and one as Cambodia's non-titled head of state. He also held many positions in various governments in exile. He had a role on the world's stage for an extraordinary 64 years. In a biographer's words, he led a life "deeply tinged with tragedy and, on more than a few occasions, lightened by manic comedy".

In 1941, Cambodia's French administrators put him on the throne, expecting that the then frivolous 19-year-old would be a placid rubber stamp for Parisian decisions.

For much of his early rule, he was indeed an amorous playboy - in his typically frank self-description, chaud lapin (randy as a rabbit in French). But in 1953, at age 31, he seemed to change.

As a communist revolution mounted in intensity in neighbouring Vietnam, Sihanouk led his country to independence from France. Shortly after, he freed himself from the throne's restraint on his activities by suddenly abdicating and making his father, Suramarit, the king.

With an eye on retaining something of his god-king aura, especially with the rural masses, he gave himself the title Samdech Upayuvareach (Prince Who Has Been King) and plunged into politics.

His upbringing in a royal court ill-equipped him for electoral politics. In his lively biography, "Sihanouk: Prince Of Light, Prince Of Darkness" (Allen & Unwin, 1994), Dr Milton Osborne, who once served in the Australian embassy in Phnom Penh, notes that he "could neither forgo royal prerogatives nor believe that his country would accept an alternative leader or policies".

As head of a new political movement, the People's Socialist Community, the king quickly became an all-powerful autocrat. He brought to the role a style notable for its quirkiness.

Typically, his public addresses were monologues of a couple of hours or so delivered in a distinctive high-pitched voice, serious lecturing on policy often illustrated with salacious jokes.

The Khmer masses seemed to enjoy him. Sihanouk had more trouble with Anglo-Saxons, especially the lugubrious US secretary of state John Foster Dulles. The American condemned as "immoral" attempts by Cambodia and other nations to take a neutral stance in the East-West Cold War then under way.

Dulles seemed to send ambassadors to Phnom Penh designed to annoy an Asian monarch. The king liked to tell of one ambassador, Robert McClintock, who at the opening of a maternity clinic in 1956 turned to him in front of assembled diplomats and said: "Ah, Prince Sihanouk… this should particularly interest you - as a great one-man manufacturer of babies!"

Sihanouk revered a fellow-neutralist, India's prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and for a time enjoyed the company of Indonesia's president Sukarno.

But it was not difficult to affront an ex-king. Sukarno - a notorious ladies' man, but then a 60-something with several wives - reportedly asked the king's permission to marry his daughter, Bopha Devi, a 20-something dancer in Phnom Penh's Royal Ballet.

Sihanouk's put-down was typically blunt and public. In a radio speech in 1967, he denounced Sukarno as "a scatter-brained old man fond of virgins".

Sukarno, though, was responsible for one of the king's most enduring, though peculiar, friendships. The Indonesian deliberately put the king and North Korea's Great Leader Kim Il Sung in adjoining suites for a gathering in Jakarta in 1965 to mark the 10th anniversary of the 1955 Bandung Afro-Asian solidarity talks.

How the ebullient king could have bonded with East Asia's least blithe spirit still puzzles observers. But the chemistry worked. Until Kim's death in 1992, the king referred constantly to "my best friend, the Great Leader".

A partial explanation was the Great Leader's willingness to give the king use of an elegant villa outside Pyongyang, where he often spent winter.

Once, at a dinner at the villa, the king gave me one reason for his gratitude for Kim's making available a bolt hole in North Korea's smog-free countryside: "Winter in Beijing is not funny!"

Cambodia's erratic politics often forced Sihanouk to spend more time in Beijing or Pyongyang than in Phnom Penh.

Deposed in 1970 by an army coup sponsored by the US Central Intelligence Agency, he went into exile. But China wanted a pro-Chinese flank on pro-Soviet Vietnam's borders. Under pressure from his closest Chinese friend, premier Zhou Enlai, the king threw in his lot with the Khmer Rouge.

Sihanouk's decision to lend his name to these extremist revolutionaries was a disastrous decision for Cambodia - and for the king's historical record. His presence in their ranks made it possible for the Khmer Rouge to present themselves as moderate reformers. Without him, Phnom Penh's surrender in 1975 to Pol Pot's butchers might not have come with such relative ease.

In response to barbarous and repeated Khmer Rouge incursions into Vietnam, the Vietnamese army finally invaded Cambodia late in 1978. The Chinese saved the Sihanouks, sending an aircraft in January 1979 to fly them to Beijing before Pol Pot had them executed or the Vietnamese captured them.

Within two days of their escape, Phnom Penh fell to the Vietnamese. The following day the world learnt - from a remarkable six-hour press conference - that after a long imposed silence, the singular voice of "the Snook" (as diplomats and newsmen called him in private) was back at the world's microphones.

Sihanouk then went to New York to denounce Vietnam at the United Nations. By slipping out of his Waldorf Astoria hotel suite around 2am, he escaped his Khmer Rouge minders and briefly enjoyed liberty under US protection. It was a moment, he later wrote, "that did not lack spice" - a "notorious anti-American" in America's embrace.

International intervention began restoring some order in 1992. The UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia, eventually a 22,000- strong civilian and military peacekeeping force, arranged a ceasefire and helped to conduct relatively free and fair elections in 1993.

That year, Sihanouk became king once again. In 1998, Pol Pot died, a probable suicide, while under house arrest imposed by his former followers.

A turbulent political order which Sihanouk himself repeatedly made even more manic continued in Phnom Penh. Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge officer who had defected to the Vietnamese side in the 1970s, had emerged as a strongman prime minister.

In October 2004, Sihanouk abdicated as king for the second time, naming Sihamoni, his son by Monique, as his successor. Now taking the title King Father, he moved to Beijing, where he had long been having treatment for cancer and diabetes.

But it became clear that neither his elevation to a post loftier than politics nor his absence in China would stop him from involving himself in policy.

On March 31, 2005, Sihanouk unexpectedly wrote an open letter in French accusing Thailand, Vietnam and Laos of continuing "to nibble away little by little the villages, lands, seas and islands belonging to Cambodia".

But his final contributions to the political debate also came in the form of a letter-writer calling himself Ruom Ritt. This bizarre, poison-pen phantom, believed to have been Sihanouk himself, began about five years ago writing savagely witty letters in French to Sihanouk's website (

Some were simply weird. One example is a scatologically witty reflection on Prince Charles' marriage to the "very talented in love-making Camilla". The most notable, though, were attacks on the allegedly corrupt ways of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Sihanouk identified Ruom Ritt as a friend of his primary school years ("now over 80 and retired in the French Pyrenees").

When the prime minister demanded that the King Father provide him with a precise address so that he could sue Ruom Ritt for libel, Sihanouk, on his website, declined on the grounds that he feared his friend would be murdered "as so many others have been".

When news of his death in Beijing reached Phnom Penh, most Cambodians would have mourned.

But the historian reviewing his life will find as many shadows to blame as there were happy memories to praise.

"If intention alone was the basis for judgment," biographer Osborne observed, "it would be sufficient to record that Sihanouk was and is a patriot, and to say no more.

"The problem has been that Sihanouk has always believed that he alone possessed the gift of knowing what was best for his country."

In the view of many, he was often wrong about that. But this may be said of him with no fear of contradiction: Sihanouk was never boring. A unique Asian voice is finally silent.


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