King Sihanouk, An Artist And Architect Of Cambodia | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio
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King Sihanouk, An Artist And Architect Of Cambodia

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Cambodia's former King Norodom Sihanouk dominated his country's politics through more than a half century of foreign invasion, genocide and civil war.

The monarch of the small Southeast Asian country, who often felt himself better suited to art than to statecraft, died of a heart attack Monday in Beijing, where he was receiving medical treatment. He as 89.

"The King Father," as Sihanouk was known in Cambodia, spent many years in exile in the Chinese capital, beginning in 1970.

His former information official Prince Sisowath Thomico recalls that when politics got rough, Sihanouk would escape into lavish parties, where he would wine, dine and sing for his guests. His real personality, Sisowath Thomico says, was that of an artist.

"[Sihanouk] is an artist lost in politics," he says. "He didn't intend to become king of Cambodia. You use the word romantic, yeah, he's a romantic, his approach to women, to wives and to life. He's really a romantic."

Sihanouk directed several movies, including the 1992 film My Village At Sunset, about a love triangle in a hospital full of land mine victims. Sihanouk also painted, played in a jazz band and was a big fan of Elvis Presley ballads.

The Vietnam War

Cambodia's French colonial rulers assumed he would make a good puppet king when they put him on the throne in 1941. Instead he helped Cambodia win its independence in 1953.

In the 1960s, Sihanouk tried to balance the big powers in a futile attempt to keep Cambodia neutral. He tacitly allowed Vietnamese communists to base troops in eastern Cambodia. He also tacitly allowed the U.S. to covertly bomb those bases if there were no Cambodians in the area.

Julio Jeldres is Sihanouk's biographer and former secretary.

"If the Americans had good information that the Viet Cong had established themselves there, he would close his eyes if the Americans did something against the Viet Cong," Jeldres remembers. "But that did not mean that the Americans could send the B-52s and just bombard the country wherever they wanted."

Sihanouk protested when the bombings did kill Cambodian civilians, Jeldres says, but to no avail.

The Nixon administration argued that the covert bombing campaign dealt the Vietnamese communists a significant setback and saved American lives.

Sihanouk countered that the campaign had unjustly exported the Vietnam conflict to his country.

The Khmer Rouge Era

In 1970, Sihanouk's trusted supporter Marshal Lon Nol ousted him in a coup d'etat. Sihanouk alleged that the CIA was behind the plot.

Sihanouk then allied himself with the communist Khmer Rouge movement to fight Lon Nol.

Opposition lawmaker Son Chhay says Sihanouk bears some responsibility for the genocide under the Khmer Rouge's rule from 1975 to 1979, during which they wiped out up to a quarter of Cambodia's population.

"Without Sihanouk's decision to join the communist movement, the Khmer Rouge would not be able to take power in this country. And we would not have to lose so many human lives," Son Chhay says. "So he has to take some responsibility. You cannot ignore that fact."

Jeldres disagrees. He says that what really helped the Khmer Rouge was U.S. intervention.

"If the United States had not encouraged and supported the coup in 1970, the Khmer Rouge would not have grown from what they were," he says. "They were just a minuscule group of subversives."

A Survivor

Sihanouk spent most of the Khmer Rouge era as a prisoner in his own palace. He eventually returned to the throne in 1993, but real power has remained in the hands of Hun Sen, the current prime minister.

An adviser to King Norodom Sihamoni, Son Soubert, says that Sihanouk's shifting alliances were not the sign of a character flaw, but merely a survival tactic.

"One thing they usually accused him of is he is a mercurial prince. But to defend Cambodia, you have to react to the international events," Son Soubert says. "We are a small country. We have to turn with the wind."

Sihanouk abdicated the throne to his eldest son, Norodom Sihamoni, in 2004. King Sihamoni and Prime Minister Hun Sen will now bring the former king's body back to Cambodia for a state funeral.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit

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