By any standards, Norodom Sihanouk was one of the most remarkable political figures of the 20th century. During the course of a lifetime that lasted 89 years, he filled the roles of king, prime minister and chief of state of his country and in doing so took actions for good and bad that had profound effects on the course of Cambodia’s modern history.
In his early adult life, he was by his own account a playboy. He was a musician of more than modest talent, but in his other artistic endeavours as a filmmaker his efforts were at best mediocre. In the late 1970s he was, for nearly three years, a prisoner of the murderous Khmer Rouge. It says much about this extraordinary man that such a listing only touches the surface of his many public and private roles.
The first thing to remember about Norodom Sihanouk, the former king of Cambodia, who died yesterday, in Beijing, is that he was the titular head of the Khmer Rouge in the nineteen-seventies, when it held power under the command of Pol Pot, and presided over the extermination of nearly two million Cambodians. Never mind that Pol Pot (who was raised in the royal palace in Phnom Penh before being sent to school in Paris, where he became a Communist) called for regicide in his first published writing, declaring in 1952 that the monarchy was “a running sore that just people must eliminate.” Sihanouk was always in it for Sihanouk.
Having made a hash of his attempts to play Cold War forces off against one another on the edge of the Vietnam War, Sihanouk had been ousted and saw Pol Pot as his way back to power. Pol Pot saw Sihanouk as the perfect cover story for his revolution—a royalist front for the total erasure of Cambodian history and the fantasy of Year Zero. When I visited Cambodia just after Pol Pot’s death, in 1998, I wrote of Sihanouk: “His name became the Khmer Rouge’s greatest recruitment tool, and the most extreme Communist movement in history swept to power on royal coattails.” And yet, instead of being held responsible for helping to unleash hell, “that sexy Prince Sihanouk,” as Spalding Gray called him in “Swimming to Cambodia,” managed for much of the rest of his life to act as if he was as wronged as the great mass of Khmers.
“Why has the oppressed proletariat not come to its senses and joined you in your fight for world liberation? … [Because] they know that your antiquated styles of protest – your marches, hand held signs, and gatherings – are now powerless to effect real change because they have become such a predictable part of the status quo. They know that your post-Marxist jargon is off-putting because it really is a language of mere academic dispute, not a weapon capable of undermining systems of control.”