Death of former Cambodian king who was caught up in decades of turmoil


CAMBODIA’S FORMER king, Norodom Sihanouk, an aristocrat who led his country to independence in 1953 but was forced into exile after a US-backed coup, died in the Chinese capital yesterday, aged 89.

A cunning and ruthless figure, Sihanouk was a playboy and a political survivor, as well as a painter, musician and bon viveur who married at least five times and had 14 children.

Born in 1922, Sihanouk was the eldest son of King Norodom Suramarit and Queen Kossamak, and was educated at French schools in Saigon and Paris. He was crowned king of Cambodia by the Nazi-controlled Vichy government in France in 1941.

His Sangkum movement won elections in 1955, but he subsequently passed a law in 1963 leaving his period in office open-ended. Over the next seven years he juggled both sides of the political spectrum, including the left-wing Khmer Rouge.

He turned a blind eye to the movement of troops and weapons by the Viet Cong, and activity by the Vietnam People’s Army within Cambodian borders, alienating many Cambodians. This led to US bombing raids on Vietnamese communist guerrillas in Cambodia.

In 1970, Sihanouk was ousted by a US-backed coup that installed the right-wing Lon Nol as Cambodia’s leader, and Sihanouk was forced into exile in Beijing.

While in China, then run by Mao Zedong, Sihanouk made a pact with the Khmer Rouge and returned as head of state when they seized power in 1975. But they proved dangerous bed-fellows and Sihanouk was quickly consigned to house arrest in the royal palace for the four years of Khmer Rouge rule. During their reign of terror, 1.7 million people were killed or worked to death, including several of Sihanouk’s children.

Sihanouk returned to Beijing after the Vietnamese ousted the Khmer Rouge in 1978, and stayed away until 1991, when the UN moved in to Cambodia to rebuild democracy there. Sihanouk was again crowned king in 1993.

However, four years later, violent faction fighting saw his son and then-first prime minister Norodom Ranariddh ousted by then-second prime minister Hun Sen, who remains in power.

In 2004, Sihanouk voluntarily abdicated the throne, citing poor health. The move paved the way for another son, Norodom Sihamoni, a former ballet dancer, to take his place.

Sihanouk died at a hospital in Beijing after a heart attack. He had been in poor health for several years, the Xinhua news agency reported. His body is expected to be returned to Cambodia and go on display for three months in the capital, Phnom Penh, before an official funeral at the royal palace.