Thursday, 18 October 2012

Who was Sihanouk?


Norodom Sihanouk, the self-styled King-Father of Cambodia, has died at the age of 89 in circumstances far more pleasant than the many Cambodians he outlived. He spent his last years in North Korea and China, the appropriate compatriots of a man who took the side of the Khmer Rouge out of his own opportunism. It's true that Sihanouk was just another man clutching at straws in the chaos of the American war on Indochina. He was both a hostage of and accomplice to the Khmer Rouge. Just as Sihanouk had juggled the various powers in the Vietnam war to maintain Cambodia's "neutrality" and hold onto the thrown, the demagogue went on to stand as a voice of opposition during the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia. To this end Sihanouk took the side of the Khmer Rouge in those years as the respectable face to the international community. And yet Sihanouk began his reign as a playboy and demagogue, it seems he learned quick how to dance to the tune of foreign powers.

That was the case with the French until the old empire was on its last legs. Sihanouk moved to establish an independent state in 1953 and reinvented himself as the father of the nation. Yet the young King continued the alliance with France even after independence. In 1955 Sihanouk stepped down as King, letting his father take his place, only to lead the country on a populist appeal to cultural conservatism, revolutionary nationalism and Buddhist socialism. Though Sihanouk later took up the powers of King as a Prince when his father died. It was a balancing act, Sihanouk was keen to keep Cambodia out of the Indochinese conflict and played leftists against rightists. In the end, his former deputy, Lon Nol seized power in a putsch in 1970 with the approval of the CIA. It was then that Sihanouk forged a coalition with Pol Pot. Meanwhile the reactionary nationalist Lon Nol supported the US campaign to repeatedly bomb Cambodia thereby laying the road to Phnom Penh for the jungle-dwelling guerrillas.

As the Khmer Republic crumbled in 1975 Lon Nol opted for a last stand - it came straight out of Buddhist mysticism - and when the Khmer Rouge surrounded the capital the Marshall had a ring of consecrated sand spread around the entire city. The sand couldn't save Cambodia from what happened next. At first the mood was one of celebration as the youthful troops draped in black and red garb marched into town. The mood soon changed when the thugs started to evacuate the city, dumping the old and the infirmed at the side of the road to die. The rest of the people were marched into the jungle at gun-point. During all of this Sihanouk spent his time between Beijing and Pyongyang, upon his return to Cambodia he would serve briefly as a mascot monarch of the Angkar. He gave a lie-riddled speech at the UN defending Pol Pot, though Sihanouk was just a pawn in a game this was no trivial game. The Chinese supported Pol Pot in order to colonise Cambodia and counter the shift of power as Vietnam realigned itself with the Soviet Union.

For more on this period of Cambodia's history see my latest article.

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