Obituary: Norodom Sihanouk, former king of Cambodia

Norodom Sihanouk. Photo: 2002Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Norodom Sihanouk was vital force for unity in Cambodia

Unpredictable, ebullient, mercurial, autocratic, self-indulgent - these are just some of the descriptions applied over the years to former King Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia.

Married six times and the father of at least 14 children, a saxophone player, a song writer, a film maker, a bon vivant who loved French cooking and wines, Sihanouk was never afraid of appearing eccentric.

"Cambodians are all naughty boys, and that includes me," he once said.

Yet beneath all the joking and indulgence was a master politician and leader who frequently changed allegiances but always tried to preserve the unity of his country and prevent it being gobbled up by the big powers.

Sihanouk was born in 1922, the eldest son of King Norodom Suramarit and Queen Kossamak.

Educated at French schools in Saigon and in Paris, the Nazi controlled Vichy government in France crowned Sihanouk king of Cambodia in 1941, bypassing his father in the hope that the 18 year old could easily be manipulated.

However, after the war Sihanouk embarked on an international campaign aimed at ensuring independence for Cambodia.

Despite being rebuffed by the US, whose policies towards Indo China Sihanouk was always scathing about, Cambodia won its freedom in 1953.

It was achieved without bloodshed after nearly a century of French rule. Two years later Sihanouk abdicated in favour of his father and became both prime minister and foreign minister of his country.

Image source, AP
Image caption,
Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge brought death and starvation to millions of Cambodians

Khmer Rouge deal

For the next 10 years, he successfully steered Cambodia on a neutral course. However, as the war in Vietnam escalated, Sihanouk became more critical of America, accusing Washington-supported South Vietnamese troops of repeated incursions into Cambodian territory.

Meanwhile, Washington accused Sihanouk of allowing North Vietnamese troops passage through his country.

In March 1970, while Sihanouk was visiting the Soviet Union, General Lon Nol, then Cambodian Prime Minister, seized control of the government with American help.

Sihanouk went into exile in Beijing and threw his support behind the Khmer Rouge guerrillas who were emerging as a considerable fighting force.

When the Khmer Rouge moved into Phnom Penh in 1975, Sihanouk returned as head of state. He was criticised for acting as the chief apologist for the murderous Khmer Rouge regime and its leader Pol Pot.

Later Sihanouk, who spent much of the Pol Pot era a virtual prisoner in the royal palace, said he was unaware of the Khmer Rouge's worst excesses which included the killing of about one million Cambodians.

Among those who died were five of Sihanouk's own children, and at least 15 grandchildren. In early 1979, Vietnam invaded Cambodia and, once again, Sihanouk fled into exile in China.

For the next decade, Sihanouk worked from his bases in China and North Korea to expel the Vietnamese from Cambodia. He refused to break with the Khmer Rouge who still held much military power.

'Tragic hero'

In 1990, the Vietnamese withdrew. Sihanouk was at the centre of complex negotiations involving royalists, the Khmer Rouge and Hun Sen, the Vietnamese-backed prime minister, to form a new government.

Image source, AP
Image caption,
Sihanouk once said it would take a Shakespeare to do literary justice to his reign

Though he cajoled and joked his way through these talks - Sihanouk occasionally brought his poodle to the negotiations - his performance was judged by many to be a triumph of diplomacy.

In 1991, Sihanouk was appointed president, then two years later, amid the numerous twists and turns of Cambodian politics, he was, for the second time, crowned King, a position he retained until his abdication in October 2004 due to ill health.

Sihanouk did an about face on the Khmer Rouge, roundly condemning them as murderers, calling for their leaders to face trial and seeking to exclude them from any role in government.

In his later years, often absent from his country to undergo medical treatment for cancer and a series of mild strokes, Sihanouk was seen less and less by his people.

But to the end he maintained their loyalty and was a vital force for unity in a turbulent part of the world.

He once said it would take a Shakespeare to do literary justice to his reign. "But the tragic hero is not Sihanouk but the people of Cambodia," he said.