By Patrick Barta, Wall Street Journal in Bangkok with the contribution from Sun Narin in Cambodia
Norodom Sihanouk, a two-time king who helped guide the small Southeast Asian nation of Cambodia through its first years of independence but ultimately failed to prevent it from descending into genocide at the end of the Vietnam War, died early Monday of natural causes in Beijing. He was 89 years old.
According to state-run Xinhua news agency, Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo, Director of the General Office of the CPC Central Committee Li Zhanshu and Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi visited Cambodia’s former Queen Norodom Monineath Sihanouk on Monday morning to express their condolences and sympathy. “We are greatly shocked and grieved to learn that His Majesty former King Sihanouk died this morning in Beijing,” Mr. Xi said after a silent tribute in front of a portrait of Mr. Sihanouk.
Mr. Xi spoke highly of Mr. Sihanouk as an old friend of the Chinese people, who he said would live in the hearts of Chinese and Cambodian people forever. Mr. Xi said that he believed that the friendship between the two nations would continue and develop, according to Xinhua.
The energetic, mercurial leader was considered a major figure in 20th century Asian politics, and his years in power are remembered fondly by many Cambodians, many of whom viewed him as semidivine and credited him with securing Cambodia’s freedom from France in the 1950s. His skillful diplomacy in the 1960s helped ensure that Cambodia wasn’t swept into the mushrooming conflict in neighboring Vietnam, though he was eventually pushed from power as the conflict there escalated.
The legacy of Mr. Sihanouk’s operatic life is tainted by his complex and controversial association with the Khmer Rouge, a radical left-wing insurgency that controlled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 and launched one of the worst genocides of the 20th century, leaving more than a million Cambodians dead. Although historians say Mr. Sihanouk didn’t actively participate in Khmer Rouge policy making and deplored its tactics, he at times aligned himself with the group in hopes of regaining his power, and some critics say his affiliation with the group helped its cause.
In a 2005 memoir, Mr. Sihanouk said he “dared to struggle in alliance with the Red Khmers, against U.S. imperialism” but ultimately “condemned the despotic and bloody regime” of the Khmer Rouge, which he said “elevated lying, deception and intellectual dishonesty to the rank of a state institution.”
Mr. Sihanouk still has many defenders, including some Cambodian historians who argue he wanted what he thought was best for his country, including peace, independence and recognition on the world stage. But he also was criticized widely for vanity and a domineering style, and for treating Cambodians as if they were children who couldn’t decide their fates without his supreme guidance.
It isn’t fair to blame Mr. Sihanouk directly for the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, but his refusal to nurture a more mature democracy and bring other voices into government while he was in power “opened the way” for more-radical leftists to take over, said Milton Osborne, a former Australian diplomat in Cambodia and visiting fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney.
“I think he can be faulted fundamentally for his inability to share responsibility with anyone in the Cambodian state and his belief that he, and he alone, knew what was best for Cambodia,” said Mr. Osborne.
Mr. Sihanouk was a survivor, though, and in his later years Cambodians and international diplomats turned to him again as one of the few figures capable of unifying the war-torn country. He became king again in 1993, a post he held until 2004. In many ways the decision was an affirmation of Mr. Sihanouk’s exceptional political skill, which he used to play superpowers off each other while scrambling to maintain a role for himself at home. With his health woes mounting, he abdicated in 2004, allowing the throne to pass to his son, former ballet dancer Norodom Sihamoni. His son is still on the throne in the largely ceremonial position.
Mr. Sihanouk was known as a hard worker who distrusted strict ideologies and foreign intervention, though he labored to charm foreign leaders with a legendary attention to detail when it served his interests. Diplomats recalled that he made sure British royalty were treated to British toilet paper during a visit before the Vietnam War.
He was something of a bon vivant, producing his own films, heading up a jazz band, and playing saxophone at late-night parties. He often boasted of his amorous adventures, and fathered 14 children from at least five marriages.
Mr. Sihanouk was born in 1922 in Phnom Penh. Over the years, the royal family’s powers had been chipped away as France expanded its influence in Cambodia in the 19th and early 20th centuries. French officials chose then-Prince Sihanouk for the throne in 1941 because they thought he would be weak and compliant, serving as a figurehead while French authorities administered the state.
But King Sihanouk proved hard to manage. He rallied public support for independence, and secured it in 1953 as France sought to rein in its colonial adventures. A year later, Mr. Sihanouk abdicated to remake himself as a mass politician, serving as prime minister and in other roles that enabled him to effectively dominate Cambodian politics until 1970.
As Cambodia’s main leader in that period, he took many steps to improve the country, including spending heavily on education. But the economy struggled at times after he nationalized key industries as part of a program he termed “Buddhist Socialism,” and he became increasingly autocratic, cracking down on dissidents whom he saw as a threat to public order.
He steered a neutral course when tensions rose in Vietnam, though doing so became harder as the conflict escalated. Facing pressure from North Vietnam, he broke off diplomatic ties with the U.S. in the mid-1960s, and later retreated more into filmmaking, which critics said detached him from policy making and the realities of his country’s poverty. At a 1969 international film festival stage-managed by the royal household, one of his films was awarded a solid gold statue made from ingots donated by Cambodia’s national bank.
A year later, Mr. Sihanouk was overthrown by a pro-U.S. government, and the U.S. military expanded bombing campaigns in the country to flush out communists taking refuge there. In exile in Beijing, Mr. Sihanouk allied himself with China’s communists and the Khmer Rouge, who were trying to oust Cambodia’s new leader, Lon Nol. When the Khmer Rouge succeeded, taking over Phnom Penh in 1975, Mr. Sihanouk was installed, temporarily, as the Khmer Rouge’s puppet head of state.
Upon his return to Phnom Penh, Mr. Sihanouk became a prisoner of the new regime, led by dictator Pol Pot, which wanted to make Cambodia into a Maoist utopia by abolishing private property and currency and setting up agricultural collectives around the country. The movement forced nearly all Phnom Penh residents into the countryside and massacred perceived enemies of the state, including some of Mr. Sihanouk’s relatives, on a mass scale.
Vietnamese invaders toppled the Khmer Rouge in 1979, ushering in further instability. Mr. Sihanouk kept residences in China and North Korea but maintained links with Cambodia’s main political players—including Khmer Rouge holdouts—until he was able to re-emerge in 1993, in his early 70s, as king again.
His second kingship was largely a symbolic post, and his ambitions were frequently thwarted by other leaders such as Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge cadre who defected from the group before becoming Cambodia’s prime minister. Feeling marginalized, Mr. Sihanouk looked for other outlets to express himself, including regular bulletins and blog posts for diplomats and journalists filled with recipes, musings on Cambodian politics and graphic details about his various ailments, from diabetes to cancer.