Sihanouk: A lead player in many roles

Norodom Sihanouk, born Oct 31, 1922, was a charismatic figure in Cambodian politics.

In many ways, he was larger than life: He took six wives and concubines, and fathered at least 14 children in 11 years; he was fascinated with films and became a film director, producer, cameraman and actor; and he played the saxophone well.

The French plucked him from down the line of succession and put him on Cambodia's throne in 1941, mistakenly thinking he would be easy to control.

But the young king agitated for Cambodia's independence, eventually gaining the support of the United States, Canada and Japan, among others. France finally relented, granting Cambodia independence on Nov 9, 1953.

In 1955, Sihanouk abdicated in favour of his father so he could enter politics and become prime minister. When his father died in 1960, Sihanouk again became head of state, with the title of prince.

I met Norodom Sihanouk when I visited Phnom Penh in 1967, and later I twice visited Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, where the ruins bear witness to a once great civilisation. Both times, he generously requested that I use his residence's services at my disposal.

In 1965, Sihanouk made a pact with China and North Vietnam that allowed North Vietnam to establish bases in Cambodia and China to send military supplies to Vietnam through Cambodia's ports. This, combined with the severe political repression unleashed in 1966-1967, set the stage for civil war.

In 1970, when Sihanouk was on a visit to Moscow, General Lon Nol staged a successful coup. Sihanouk sought refuge in China and set up a government-in-exile. Gen Lon Nol, however, was unable to stop the North Vietnamese from using Cambodian territory to infiltrate and attack South Vietnam. This caused US forces, in defence of South Vietnam, to regularly bomb the border.

In 1975, the Khmer Rouge, whose goal was to demolish Cambodian society and rebuild it from scratch, overthrew Gen Lon Nol.

The Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, in his ideological madness, destroyed the Cambodian intelligentsia and killed more than one million people in what came to be known as the "Killing Fields".

Democratic Kampuchea's Khmer Rouge Foreign Minister Ieng Sary came to Singapore and explained that they were going to build a new society, one not corrupted or influenced by French colonialism.

Once the Khmer Rouge took over, Prince Sihanouk returned to Cambodia as the symbolic head of state. But it was not long before he was placed under house arrest. During this time, many members of the Sihanouk family were killed or deported.

Following the Vietnam War, North Vietnam signed a mutual defence pact with the Soviet Union, hoping it would be protected when it embarked on the annexation of Cambodia and Laos.

Deng Xiaoping, China's supreme leader, was not about to let this happen. He visited Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, and in November 1978 told me to expect a response from China if Vietnam embarked on such an invasion.

He said China did not want a Soviet "Cuba" in South-east Asia. When the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia that December and seized control of Phnom Penh in early 1979, China crushed and punished the provinces of North Vietnam just across its border and put paid to their wider ambitions.

Sihanouk was sent by the Khmer Rouge to speak at the United Nations in its defence and against the Vietnamese invasion. But while in New York, he planned his escape, fleeing after his UN speech and seeking refuge in China and North Korea.

In 1993, following UN-sponsored elections, Cambodia's National Assembly voted to restore the monarchy and Sihanouk was reinstated as king. But in October 2004, citing poor health, Sihanouk abdicated.

The government proclaimed him His Majesty the King-Father of Cambodia. He lived the rest of his life in Pyongyang and Beijing, returning to Phnom Penh to celebrate his 89th birthday with a last public appearance in October 2011.

Sihanouk died 16 days shy of 90, having spent most of his life in service to his country and people.

This article first appeared in this month's issue of Forbes Asia magazine in a column rotated among this writer, a former prime minister of Singapore; Mr David Malpass, global economist and president of Encima Global; Ms Amity Shales, director of the 4 per cent Growth Project; and Mr Paul Johnson, eminent British historian and author.

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