During the preparations for the funeral of Cambodia’s King-Father Norodom Sihanouk it was announced that a seven metre-high statue of him would be erected and a new 1,000-riel note issued, replacing the image of a seaport with the former monarch’s portrait. Most importantly, a magnificent but temporary palace complex was built – seemingly overnight – for the cremation ceremony. Its construction cost more than £750,000.
Outside Cambodia, King Sihanouk, who lived to be almost 90 years old, was regarded as a controversial leader. He was blamed for helping to bring the Khmer Rouge to power and for defending them at the United Nations,
even after they had murdered an estimated two million of his countrymen. One thing is clear: Sihanouk was unique in many ways. He was the author of several books, the father of 14 children, a husband to six wives,
a musician, a composer, a film-maker and an actor (in his own movies). He may have been the world’s only royal film-maker, says his official biographer Julio Jeldres, who admits he has lost track of how many films the King made – 30 or 40, he believes.
King Sihanouk was born in 1922. On his mother’s side, he was the grandson of King Sisowath Monivong, who ascended to the throne in 1927; on his father’s side, he was the great-grandson of King Norodom I, who ruled Cambodia in the late 19th century. Sihanouk’s life took an unusual turn almost from the start, when an astrologer predicted that he would die young unless his parents sent him away. Trusting this advice, Sihanouk went to live with his 75-year-old great-grandmother.
“He was an only child, and I get the feeling that he was a lonely child,” says Jeldres.
Crowned at the age of 18, Sihanouk immediately began modernising Cambodia, introducing the constitution in 1947 and establishing a national assembly. One of his greatest achievements was obtaining independence from France in 1953 through diplomacy and entirely without bloodshed. The King was proud that Cambodia became
independent a year before neighbouring Vietnam, where the war against colonialism claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.
In Sihanouk’s own book, Charisma and Leadership, he wrote: “I succeeded then, at a moment that France was weak in Indochina, in persuading the French that they were better off under a pro-French independent Cambodia than an anti-French occupied Cambodia.”
On the personal front, the King had a playboy reputation. Indeed, he fathered a dozen children without being officially married to their mothers. According to Prince Sisowath Thomico, Sihanouk’s nephew and long-time personal assistant, the monarch jokingly compared himself with his great-grandfather, King Norodom (who had a harem of 200 women), King Sisowath (whose harem numbered 100), and his grandfather, King Monivong (who had 60 ‘wives’). In this context, six seems modest.
“Polygamy has always been anchored in Cambodian society,” Thomico explained. “The first constitution that
proclaimed monogamy in Cambodia was the Khmer Rouge constitution in 1976.”
However, there is no question about who was Sihanouk’s favourite. Queen-Mother Norodom Monineath, the daughter of a French-Italian banker, was just 15 and named Monique when she married him in 1952. It was her portrait that hung alongside his on the wall of every government building, her name that was mentioned in King Sihanouk’s memoirs and her son, Norodom Sihamoni, who inherited the throne.
Sihanouk’s movies often focused on romantic encounters between himself and the Queen, although the circumstances of their imagined meetings varied. In one film, he played a Japanese general who falls in love with a Cambodian lady during the Second World War; in another, Monineath assumed the role of an Indian widow who meets an ailing Cambodian prince (Sihanouk) during a visit to Angkor Wat. In a third scenario, Queen Monineath becomes a foreign ambassador during a CIA coup against Sihanouk.
In real life, King Sihanouk proposed to Monineath when she won a prize in a beauty pageant.
The years after independence were prosperous for Cambodia and are remembered nostalgically by many today
as the country’s ‘golden age’. Sihanouk worked hard to maintain Cambodia’s neutrality and skilfully extracted favours from the Soviet Union, China and the United States. Cambodia’s music and film industry flourished; schools, roads, hospitals and factories were built.
But despite Sihanouk’s efforts, it was hard to keep Cambodia out of the Vietnam War. Vietnamese communists began using Cambodian territory to transport supplies from North Vietnam to the South. The Americans, fighting communism in Vietnam, started bombing Cambodia in an attempt to put an end to this. Meanwhile, a domestic communist insurgency was growing.
In 1970, while King Sihanouk was abroad, he was overthrown by the right-wing General Lon Nol. The military government, which abolished the monarchy, was immediately recognised by the United States – who, Sihanouk believed, had masterminded the coup. The King responded by establishing, in China, the National United Front of Kampuchea to fight against Lon Nol’s regime. This organisation united Cambodian royalists with the Khmer Rouge, who were also waging war with Lon Nol.
Historians have blamed Sihanouk for the Khmer Rouge victory, arguing that the King’s popularity led thousands of
Cambodians to join the insurgency. Many of these new recruits were allegedly fighting not for communism but for
Thomico emphasises that the King did not join the Khmer Rouge. Rather, it was the Khmer Rouge who answered his call. “There was never such a thing as an alliance between Sihanouk and the Khmer Rouge,” he recalled. “They never discussed internal affairs, power sharing or how the power would be held after the victory.”
When Sihanouk returned to Cambodia in 1975 – allegedly to serve as the head of state of Democratic Kampuchea – he found himself imprisoned in the Royal Palace.
“There were days when he didn’t know how long he’d be kept alive,” Jeldres says. “People were disappearing left, right and centre from his entourage. Someone would take the rubbish out and not come back. Sihanouk kept two tablets of poison that he was going to use if the Khmer Rouge came to kill him.”
During those years, the Khmer Rouge murdered five of the King’s children and fourteen of his grandchildren.
After Vietnam liberated Cambodia from Pol Pot’s regime, Sihanouk asked the UN to demand an end to
“Vietnam’s interference in Cambodian affairs.” About this, Jeldres writes, “Sihanouk was not defending the Khmer
Rouge regime that had kept him prisoner for almost three years, but the independence and territorial integrity of
Sihanouk then fled to North Korea, where President Kim Il-Sung built him a palace complete with cinema. He chose North Korea because “it was the only country that supported
him and gave him money to undertake political activities,” says Thomico, who joined his uncle in exile.
Sihanouk returned to Cambodia in 1991 to a triumphant welcome, and two years later the nation became a
constitutional monarchy once again. But in 2004, the King abdicated due to his failing health (he had been diagnosed with cancer 12 years earlier). His son, Norodom Sihamoni, acceded to the throne.
King Sihanouk died of a heart attack in Beijing on 15 October 2012 at the age of 89. Hundreds of thousands of
people in white shirts (official reports said there were one million mourners) congregated near the Monument of
Independence, where Norodom Street intersects with Sihanouk Boulevard, when his body was flown home.
At around this time, Cambodians started seeing the King’s face on the moon. Stories about this appeared in newspapers and indeed the moon was full after Sihanouk died and its landscape looked like the features on a human face. By the beginning of February, it had been three and a half months since King Sihanouk’s death. During that time, his body lay in a closed casket inside the Royal Palace as groups of barefoot mourners came to pay their respects.
On 4 February, King Sihamoni and his mother led dignitaries including French Prime Minister Jean-Marc
Ayrault, Prince Akishino of Japan and several Southeast Asian leaders as they performed rituals around the area where the pagoda-like crematorium stood. After religious ceremonies led by chanting monks, Sihanouk’s tearful widow and son attempted to light the pyre, but only when the Cambodian Prime Minister tried did it light. A 101-gun salute echoed in the night and fireworks burst over the city.
“It’s the last day for us all to pay homage to the great hero King and to send him to heaven,” Prince Thomico told a
news agency. “It is the day for the whole nation to say goodbye to His Majesty. He is the hero of Cambodia.” Some of King Sihanouk’s ashes were scattered near the confluence of four rivers in Phnom Penh; others were put in an urn that, in accordance with his wishes, was placed in the grounds of the Royal Palace near those of his daughter,
Kantha Bopha, who died aged three.