Sihanouk: The Great Survivor

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The passing of King Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia brought more than a million people on to the streets of Pnom Penh, far more than the hundred thousand the authorities had anticipated. It was a significant moment: a gesture of respect and the acknowledgement of Sihanouk’s long and complex role in Cambodian history. It was also a generous tribute to a colourful man who undoubtedly had talent and sought, in his own mercurial way, to represent Cambodia’s interests. But King Sihanouk did not so much rule over the Southeast Asian kingdom as survive through its twentieth century traumas, ultimately coming to embody the experiences of a nation. What Sihanouk achieved is debatable but what he lived through and played a significant role in was one of the defining periods of modern history. Sihanouk, son of Prince Norodom Suramarit and Princess Sisowath Kossamak, was born on October 31 1922. He was raised and educated in the colonial style (Cambodia having become a French protectorate in 1863) and educated in Saigon, Vietnam and Paris. He was not the most dashing of men, not especially handsome and with a tendency to put on weight due to his love of rich food. His parents nicknamed him ‘Thoul’, or ‘Tubby’ and his battle with good living would be a lifelong one. On the plus side Sihanouk was intelligent, quick witted and had a wry sense of humour. And like his counterpart in Thailand, King Bhumibol, he had a taste for the modern, a fondness for jazz and the cinema. Effectively second-in-line to the throne, Cambodia’s method of choosing its monarch led to Sihanouk leap frogging his father in the succession. In 1941 Sihanouk was selected by the Crown Council following the death of his grandfather, King Monivong. At the time Sihanouk was still a student at the Lycée Chasseloup Laubat in Saigon and, fellow students recall, he was far from enamoured at the prospect of becoming king.

King Monivong had been a figurehead with little real power and his successor was similarly expected to be a weak ruler. But Sihanouk was cut from different cloth and tried to rise to the challenges confronting him, which were to steer the nation through Second World War and thereafter the last days of French colonialism. The world was at war and Cambodia, a small nation of 180,000 square kilometres and, at that time, a population of less than six million, was still part of French Indochina (comprising Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos). In March 1945 the country was occupied by Japanese forces as they overran France’s colonial possessions. With the occupying Japanese forces at his back Sihanouk proclaimed independence from France but also managed to keep some distance between himself and his new masters. Which meant that with Japan’s unconditional surrender to Allied forces on September 2, 1945, when the French retook control, the political brunt was borne by the Japanese puppet Prime Minister Son Ngoc Thanh who was sent into exile. In the post-war chaos the French saw Sihanouk as a known entity and he thereby retained his position. The first period of King Sihanouk’s reign lasted another decade but he was not ousted, instead he stepped down in an attempt to gain more direct power. Seeing which way the historical tide was flowing by the early 1950s he began to push for independence from France. It was a populist move and Cambodia’s neighbours Vietnam and Laos were also looking to lose their colonial status. It was undoubtedly a politically opportunistic move on Sihanouk’s part, but if there was a firm conviction in his long and twisting political career it was a belief in national independence. (Extract from RoyaltyMagazine Vol. 22/10)