Norodom Sihanouk, the former king of Cambodia who survived half a century of political maneuvering that saw his country get sucked into the Vietnam War and endure the murderous regime of Pol Pot, has died. He was 89.
The monarch, who abdicated in 1955 and again 49 years later, died due to a heart condition early this morning in Beijing where he underwent medical treatment, Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan said by phone. Sihanouk, who maintained houses in the Chinese capital and Pyongyang, suffered from diabetes and prostate cancer.
Notorious for switching allegiances, Sihanouk oversaw the transition from an absolute to constitutional monarchy, won independence from France, broke off relations with the U.S. during the Vietnam War and weathered two periods of involvement with Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, the regime blamed for the deaths of about one in five of the country’s people during the late 1970s.
“He has a mixed legacy,” said David Chandler, a U.S. diplomat stationed in Cambodia in the 1950s who lectures at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. “His principles were self-preservation and terrific patriotism. He made people feel that they were worthwhile and their country was worthwhile.”
Sihanouk held numerous posts, including prime minister, president, and leader of various governments-in-exile before returning to Phnom Penh in 1991 and being appointed constitutional monarch in 1993. He was succeeded in 2004 by his son, King Norodom Sihamoni.
The Cambodian government will arrange to bring his body home and hold a ceremony to remember him, Phay Siphan said.
“It’s a big loss for our nation,” he said. “He understood the people and he put himself on the same ground as other Cambodians.”
Under Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in power since 1985, Cambodia’s economy may expand 6.6 percent this year, according to the World Bank. The opposition has threatened to boycott a nationwide vote next year, alleging that election officials favor the ruling party.
Norodom Sihanouk was born in Phnom Penh on Oct. 31, 1922, and educated at the French Lycee in Vietnam before continuing his studies in France. At 18 he was chosen by the French colonial administration to succeed his grandfather as king.
The young monarch turned against his colonial backers, campaigning for and winning full independence in November 1953. He abdicated in 1955 in favor of his father so that he could enter politics. As Prince Sihanouk, he set up the Sangkum Reastr Niyum -- the People’s Socialist Community party.
“At that point he basically ended royalty in Cambodia,” Chandler said. “He just didn’t want to be king; he wanted to be the boss.”
Caught up in the competing interests of the Soviet Union, the U.S. and China, Sihanouk attempted to steer a neutral path in foreign policy, becoming a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement. In 1965, he broke ties with the U.S. over the Vietnam War, allowing the North Vietnamese to set up bases in Cambodia.
Ousted in a U.S.-backed coup by his Prime Minister Lon Nol in 1970, Sihanouk sided with a band of communist resistance fighters known as the Khmer Rouge. When the group swept to power five years later, he was appointed nominal head of state.
He resigned in 1976 and was placed under house arrest as the Khmer Rouge embarked on a radical transformation of Cambodian society. Pol Pot’s government forced the evacuation of the capital and other urban areas and embarked on a killing spree to eradicate intellectuals and ideological opponents.
Estimates of the death toll vary, with Amnesty International putting the number at 1.4 million out of an estimated population of 7.1 million, according to the U.S. Library of Congress’s country study.
Sihanouk, together with other Cambodian factions, again forged a coalition with the Khmer Rouge after Pol Pot was forced from power by the Vietnamese in January 1979. The group was created to oppose the Vietnam-backed government of Heng Samrin; a decade of civil war followed.
“The humble people of Cambodia are the most wonderful in the world,” Sihanouk said in 1979, according to the 1980 book “Sideshow” by British journalist William Shawcross. “Their great misfortune is that they always have terrible leaders who make them suffer. I am not sure that I was much better myself, but perhaps I was the least bad.”
Sihanouk’s path back to power began in August 1989 when Cambodia’s factions met under United Nations auspices in Paris. A settlement was reached the following year, and in 1991 Sihanouk returned to Phnom Penh to begin the reconstruction process ahead of nationwide elections in May 1993.
He largely thumbed his nose at the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia, better known as Untac, which had executive powers in the run-up to the election, wrote Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Henry Kamm in his book, “Cambodia: Report From a Stricken Land.”
“Where was Sihanouk, the hope of the international community for persuading Cambodians to make peace and establish badly needed national solidarity?” Kamm wrote. “He ostentatiously neglected his chairmanship of the Supreme National Council, hardly honored his country with his presence and sent a stream of sarcastic or petulant fax messages to Phnom Penh from abroad to give vent to his disdain for Untac.”
Aside from politics, Sihanouk was a keen musician and produced and directed about 20 films -- all about Cambodia. He routinely invited diplomats for lengthy karaoke sessions and maintained a blog.
“I never thought of film-making as a simple amusement or artistic activity,” he wrote in 1995. “I wanted, and still want, to show my country, its past and contemporary history, its culture, its people, and express my feelings regarding certain facets of our nation’s life. The star of my films is never an actor. It is always Cambodia.”