“The King-Father of Cambodia”


Cambodia's King Norodom Sihanouk, 89, died this week. J Brooks Spector recaps the monarch's career:

Sihanouk led his country to its independence in 1953, carefully balancing his international relationships among its neighbours and regionally dominant powers like China and the US for half a century. He achieved prominence for Cambodia as a neutral nation in the emerging non-aligned movement in a decolonizing, post-World War II world. For years, Sihanouk himself was a constant on the international stage – his pronouncements and diplomatic wiles were the stuff of international headlines. For decades as well, until the Khmer Rouge revolution overwhelmed his traditional approach to rule, Sihanouk pursued a complicated domestic balancing act in an effort to balance and counterbalance the opposing forces within the country.

Tim LaRocco recalls Sihanouk's fall from power:

In 1970, an American-backed coup forced Sihanouk to flee to China. However, with even higher suspicions of the Vietnamese communists, Sihanouk soon found himself allying with Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. Some historians have mistakenly taken this as Sihanouk’s support for the Khmer Rouge, but his "alliance" with them was mainly out of self-interests and necessity. When the Khmer Rouge drove out the Vietnamese in 1975, Sihanouk, who had since re-adopted the title of King, returned home but was virtually a prisoner in his own palace. Against a backdrop of absurd communist dictates, the Khmer Rouge systematically destroyed the country and its culture in only four years until the Vietnamese sent them running to the Thai border. The Vietnamese installed a former Khmer Rouge military commander, Hun Sen, as Prime Minister. 

Josh Kurlantzick partially faults Sihanouk for Cambodia's current problems:

At several times during his reign, Sihanouk made noises about opening Cambodia up to true multi-party democracy, but he never could really do so, preferring instead to keep all parties under the thumb of himself and the royalist establishment. At times, his beneficent monarchical style proved effective —in the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s, he made many judicious and foresighted decisions for his country. But though he is hardly the only one to blame for Cambodia’s current political state, his inability to ever move beyond his patrician, monarchical, and authoritarian style left a legacy of big man rule that Hun Sen, for years Sihanouk’s antagonist, has readily adopted.

Today, in fact, the true heir of Sihanouk is not his son Sihamoni, who sits on a far less valuable throne, but rather Hun Sen, who controls Cambodia the way Sihanouk once did.

(Photo: King Sihanouk returns to Phnom Penh on November 15th, 1991, after living in exile for 13 years. By Patrick Aventurier /Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)