Sihanouk's Legacy

Throughout his colourful yet controversial life, King Sihanouk, who died Monday in Beijing at the age of 89 served his country in several political positions, as constitutional monarch, prime minister, president and exiled leader.

“Our former King died in Beijing due to natural causes. This is a great loss for Cambodia. We feel very sad. The former king was a great king that we all respect and love him,” said Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister Nhik Bun Chhay. It was known that King Sihanouk had long suffered from cancer, diabetes and hypertension and had been treated in China for many years.

What are Sihanouk’s legacies? He often claimed that he had represented the face of Cambodian unity and remained a patriotic force against foreign intervention. As head of state of a tiny country surrounded by bigger powers, his choices in conducting his foreign policy were admittedly limited. And some of his choices proved to be dangerously erroneous. He gave his support for the Khmer Rouge and strongly defended the brutal regime at the global stage. This immensely tainted his prestige and reputation.

Now that Sihanouk has gone, all eyes are now on the way in which his son, King Sihamoni, for whom Sihanouk abdicated in 2004, will redefine the role of the monarchy in Cambodian politics. Although the monarchy has increasingly declined in political significance, its status is still important as a factor that underpins the Hun Sen regime. It will be intriguing to see how the loss of such an enigmatic figure will reshape Cambodian politics in the near future.

King Sihanouk ascended the throne in April 1941 following the death of his grandfather, King Sisowath Monivong. At the time, Cambodia was still colonized by France and was a part of French Indochina. The Japanese army helped emancipate Cambodia from its colonial masters, but it was taken over once again by France at the end of the Second World War. King Sihanouk, in his fight against the French, sought refuge in Thailand, at least until Cambodia was finally granted independence in 1953.

He returned home as a king, but his enthronement was brief. In 1955, he abdicated for the first time in favor of his father, Norodom Suramarit, and decided to enter politics. Realizing the declining power of the monarchy, Sihanouk, now reassigned a prince, formed the Sangkum Reastr Niyum, or the Popular Socialist Community Party, and contested an election in September 1955, obtaining a victory. Sihanouk then implemented a myriad of key domestic and foreign policies. He certainly exploited Cambodian nationalism while calling for his people’s support for his policies and leadership.

For example, in 1962, Sihanouk, with ongoing disputes over the ownership of the Preah Vihear Temple with Thailand, took the case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) which ruled in Cambodia’s favor. The triumph elevated his political stature. But at the same time, his country’s relations with Thailand gravely worsened.

Sihanouk continued to dominate Cambodian politics, at least until the end of the 1960s, which witnessed growing political challenges from his rivals and increasing pressures from outside, with the Americans carrying on an illegal and secret bombing campaign of his country in a failed attempt to wipe out North Vietnamese Army troops who had used it as a refuge from the war inside Vietnam.

In 1970 as Sihanouk was travelling abroad, Prime Minister Lon Nol managed to convince members of the National Assembly to vote to depose Sihanouk as head of state. As Sihanouk was kicked out, Lon Nol moved in to take full control of Cambodian politics while strengthening his position with emergency powers. It is imperative to emphasise that the Lon Nol regime was recognized by the United States, explaining why Sihanouk tilted toward China to counterbalance the American influence.

Sihanouk was forced to flee to Beijing. While in China, he founded the National United Front of Kampuchea in an attempt to overthrow the Lon Nol government with support from the Khmer Rouge. It was reported that large numbers of new recruits for the Khmer Rouge were ordinary peasants who were led to believe that they were fighting for the country, not really for communism, of which they had little understanding.

Sihanouk played an important part in consolidating the Khmer Rouge regime, and even said in 1979, “I was only fighting for my country’s independence, even if it had to be communist.” During the Khmer Rouge years, Sihanouk became a new symbolic head of state under the Pol Pot regime.

In 1978, with the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, the Heng Samrin government was installed by Hanoi, reinventing the centuries-old kingdom into a republic. Sihanouk continued to work with the Khmer Rouge in setting up another political platform to undermine the Vietnamese occupation, and appointed himself as President of the Coalition Government of Democratic Kamphuchea (CGDK).

Even after withdrawing its troops from Cambodia, Vietnam’s influence in the country remained immense. A pro-Hanoi government was formed, led by Hun Sen in a new era of the People’s Republic of Kamphuchea. The conflict between the CGDK and the PRC had characterised Cambodian politics for much of the 1980s.

Finally, peace negotiations between different political groups came through in 1991 when all agreed to sign the Paris Treaty which was followed by a United Nations-sponsored election. Sihanouk returned to Cambodia that year after more than a decade of living in exile. In 1993, he became King of Cambodia once again, but his role was increasingly ceremonial as Hun Sen had been able to consolidate his power.

By 2004, King Sihanouk’s health had fast deteriorated, prompting him to leave politics for good. Following his abdication, the Throne Council selected Sihamoni, eldest son of King Sihanouk and Queen Norodom Monineath, as the next king. The enthronement of King Sihamoni seems to have ended an era of an active royal politics as defined by King Sihanouk since Cambodia’s independence.

(Pavin Chachavalpongpun is Associate Professor at Kyoto University’s Centre for Southeast Asian Studies.)