Norodom Sihanouk

by AFP/Samantha Brown, Oct 10, 2004 | Destinations: Cambodia / Phnom Penh

Revered by Cambodians, King Norodom Sihanouk has steered his country through turbulent decades marked by coups, wars, genocide, and eventually peace.

During a career that spanned five decades, he has became one of the most prominent and colourful figures in Southeast Asia and was credited with almost singlehandedly holding his country together during the troubled years.

A threatrical and likeable figure, his shrewdness won him widespread respect but he was also prone to unpredictable behaviour -- changing alliances and frequent outbursts.

His son Prince Norodom Ranariddh announced on Thursday (October 7, 2004) that Sihanouk, 81, a contemporary of the 20th century's most influential figures including Mao Zedong and Charles de Gaulle, had abdicated. However, Ranariddh said he hoped his father would change his mind.

The ebullient monarch has played an influential role in Cambodian politics, posting handwritten notes on his website which were scrutinised by party leaders and piqued interest among readers round the globe.

His close participation in day-to-day affairs of state seemed only natural after his long representation of Cambodia on the international stage, and his deep and sincere concern for his country and its people.

Born on October 31, 1922, Sihanouk ascended the throne with the backing of the French colonialists aged just 16 only to abdicate in 1955, two years after independence, to play a more active role in domestic politics.

He skilfully claimed credit for winning independence, infuriating the country's nascent communists, many of whom would later become members of the genocidal Khmer Rouge, a label Sihanouk himself coined.

He returned as head of state after the death of his father King Norodom Suramarit in 1960, when the seeds that would lead the United States into the Indochinese wars were being sown.

On the turbulent political front, Sihanouk consolidated his power and oversaw a decade of significant economic developments and rare social stability, a period now remembered with nostalgia by Khmers.

In his spare time, he plunged into film-making, crafting a slew of elaborate feature films as the region slipped into war.

In March 1970 as the Vietnam War raged, he was toppled in a US-backed coup led by Lon Nol while touring Russia, prompting him to flee to Beijing, where he established a relationship with the Khmer Rouge that he came to regret.

Its leader Pol Pot seized Phnom Penh in 1975, seeking to establish an agrarian utopia but instead overseeing a genocide that resulted in the deaths of up to two million people over the course of their near four-year rule.

Five of Sihanouk's 14 children were killed and while he returned to the country and remained technically head of state, he spent the "Killing Fields" years under house arrest in the royal palace.

He survived after China ordered the Khmer Rouge not to harm him, a legacy of his genuine friendship with Mao -- one of many he established with leaders from all sides of the political spectrum including North Korea's Kim Jong-Il.

When Vietnamese troops ended Pol Pot's killing spree in 1979, Sihanouk fled to Beijing and spent years in exile there and in Pyongyang. He was always accompanied by his sixth wife Monique, an Italian-Cambodian he married in 1952.

Sihanouk returned home in 1991, two years after Vietnam completed its withdrawal under international pressure. He then played an active political role as the head of a ruling coalition which also embraced the Khmer Rouge.

His restoration to the throne in 1993 was widely applauded but under the rules of the new constitution he no longer governed the country.

The period of forced exile did not diminish Sihanouk's standing among Cambodians, who would prostrate themselves before him during his frequent visits to the countryside.

Behind the facade of a benevolent autocrat, Sihanouk strived tirelessly to preserve the unity of the Cambodian nation while balancing the imposing influences of great powers like China and the United States.

The impoverished kingdom now enjoys a measure of calm that has eluded it for decades, but throughout the king remained the only unifying force in a faction-ridden political scene.

He remains a close observer of Cambodia politics, but his inability to push rival parties into forming a government after inconclusive 2003 elections was a sign of his decreasing authority.

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