Sihanouk legacy

Print edition : November 16, 2012

Prince Norodom Sihanouk.-HENG SINITH/AP

THE death of Cambodias Prince Norodom Sihanouk in a Beijing hospital at the age of 89 brings to an end a controversial political career that spanned over 60 years. Sihanouk was crowned king at the age of 18. The year was 1941 and the Second World War had reached South-East Asia. The Vichy government in France wanted a pliant, titular ruler to preside over Cambodia, which was at the time a French colony. Sihanouk did not initially disappoint his colonial masters but was quick to adopt an independent stance after the war ended.

A post-War nationalist upsurge was sweeping Indo-China. The Communist Party of Vietnam was in the forefront of the struggle to get rid of colonial rule. Sihanouk, while keeping the local Cambodian communists at bay, launched an international campaign for the independence of his kingdom. In 1953, the French granted independence to Cambodia. The Vietnamese had to militarily defeat the French and then the Americans to gain complete independence for their country.

In 1955, Sihanouk abdicated the throne in favour of his father, Norodom Suramarit, but exercised real power by holding the dual posts of Prime Minister and Foreign Minister. He saw to it that the countrys foreign policy veered towards neutralism when the Cold War was at its height in the 1950s and the 1960s. But when the Americans became militarily involved in Vietnam and the war spread to Laos and Cambodia, Sihanouk came under immense pressure. Washington accused Sihanouk of allowing Vietnamese fighters to transit through Cambodian territory.

The United States reacted by engineering a coup against Sihanouk in 1970, installing the Cambodian Army Chief, General Lon Nol, at the helm of affairs. By this time, the local Communist Partythe Khmer Rougehad launched a guerrilla war of its own. The crude American interference in the internal affairs of the country gave a further fillip to its struggle. Sihanouk set up base in Beijing and signalled his support for the Khmer Rouge. In fact, many historians aver that Sihanouks support for the Khmer Rouge was crucial to its eventual victory and the disaster that followed.

After the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975, it appointed Sihanouk head of state but he remained a figurehead confined to his palace during the four years of the Khmer Rouges bloody rule. It is estimated that more than a million Cambodians perished in that period.

Sihanouk himself lost five of his children and 15 grandchildren. He married six times and fathered at least 14 children. He was rescued from his palace by the Vietnamese Army that had booted out the Khmer Rouge in 1979. But to the surprise of many, he continued to defend the Khmer Rouge and its leader, Pol Pot, for a long time. Pol Pot had grown up in the royal palace but had become a communist when he went for higher studies in Paris. In one of his first writings, Pol Pot had called for the overthrow of the monarchy. Evidently, the old monarch believed that the Khmer Rouge was defending Cambodian national interests against the Vietnamese overlords.

From exile, he never wavered in his support for the Khmer Rouge as it waged a bloody civil war against the Vietnamese-backed government that had replaced it. After the withdrawal of the Vietnamese force in 1990, Sihanouk was once again appointed king. He abdicated in 2004 owing to ill health. During his last stint as monarch, he did another political somersault and condemned the Khmer Rouge guerrillas as killers and demanded their permanent exclusion from the politics of the country.

John Cherian
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