Norodom Sihanouk

Norodom Sihanouk

Norodom Sihanouk

One of the prominent political figures of the twentieth century, especially for Asia’s twentieth century, Norodom Sihanouk, has died. On and off, he was the actual ruler, or one of the leaders, of Cambodia, and a key player in Southeast Asian politics. Shrewd politician as well as prolific filmmaker, “father of the country” and singer who made several LPs, he was a larger than life figure, present both in the political decision rooms and in the salons of the world for over half a century. Like his ancestors, over the course of his life he had dozens of concubines and fathered a total of 14 children. Finally, for most of the lifetime of the people living today in Cambodia, he was the determining national figure, whether they liked him, or not.

But where and what is Cambodia?


Cambodia is a country in Southeast Asia, situated between Laos (to the north), Vietnam (east) and Thailand (west), and enjoying a long oceanic coastline to the southwest.

Today its population is of about 14 million people, mostly of Khmer ethnicity, but there are also Vietnamese and Chinese minority groups. The main religion of the population is Theravada Buddhism. Its current capital is Pnomh Penh.

The first organized political units in the area, that are mentioned in historical sources (mainly Chinese), date between the first and fifth centuries. They were already influenced by Indian culture, both in terms of social structures and of religion (Hinduism & Buddhism).

However, the golden age of Cambodian history takes place between the 9th and the 13th century. This is the period of political (territorial) expansion, and of building some of its most remarkable monuments – like Angkor Vatt. After the fourteenth century there follows a period of decline and of ongoing conflicts with the neighboring Thai, Siamese and Vietnamese powers.

By the 19th century, tired of this continued struggle with its neighbors, Cambodia appeals to the colonial power of France for help, and becomes a protectorate in 1864. For nearly a century thereafter, France will control the area (including parts of today’s Vietnam, Laos etc. – what was known as Indochina) politically and economically.  However, since the French were mostly interested in extracting resources, and less in running the country, they left the monarchy and the social arrangements largely undisturbed, which actually dampened the possible anti-colonial feelings.

(There are several good resources on Cambodia’s older and more recent history, and they are well-worth exploring and using.)

Norodom Sihanouk: Beginnings & Golden Age

Norodom Sihanouk enters the stage in 1941, as part of a long blood line of Cambodian monarchs, by being installed in power by the French, while he was only 18 years old. Although the goal was to have a more easily controllable local ruler, through deft maneuvering Norodom will play a central part after the war in the (relatively peaceful and untroubled) decolonization of his country. The French leave in 1953, but two years later Norodom Sihanouk abdicates (as monarch) in favor of his father (whom he initially replaced), in order to be able to get involved in the actual political life of the country. Correspondingly, soon after he becomes prime minister – until 1960, when his father dies, and he will have to go back to occupy the position of head of state.

During the 1950s and 1960s Norodom Sihanouk tried to walk a fine line, both with regards to the conflicts raging in the region, as well as in relation to the two ideological-military blocks during the Cold War, even  joining as a founder the non-aligned movement. This period represents Norodom Sihanouk’s golden age – he rules autocratically, according to his own original blend  of Buddhism and socialism, and also devotes time and money to his extracurricular passions.  He edits magazines, directs films, conducts jazz bands, and croons songs of his own composition (see links to his works on the right side of his personal website).

However, in 1965 he drifts from the middle line from which he and the country had benefited, and breaks off relations with the US, as a result of their bombing guerrilla groups within his country, and throws his support behind the North Vietnamese guerrillas. Meanwhile, the country itself is caught between rival political forces of the right and of the far left, and these tensions that will come to a head in 1970 when, after years of declining economic conditions, Sihanouk is removed from power through a US-supported coup led by army leaders (the right wing faction). The ideological motivation of these forces contained, among others, a strong nationalistic streak, being motivated by an anti-Vietnamese feeling that has a long tradition in Cambodian history. Sihanouk seeks refuge in China, where he will start to build ever closer relations with the leaders of a communist group called the Khmer Rouge (“red Khmers”).

The Khmer Rouge

Between 1970-1975, the Khmer Rouge troops increase their  power and the aggressiveness of their operations within Cambodia, fighting the military-led regime with Vietnamese and Chinese support. Through a gradual grinding down of the power of the regime, they manage to enter and occupy the capital Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975. During these years the Khmer Rouge had earned themselves a fierce and terrible reputation,  becoming known for their extreme ideology, for their strident and aggressive rhetoric (they had a public kill list), and for the mass atrocities they committed programatically in the areas they conquered. This reputation did not fail to confirm itself immediately after they took power. All city dwellers (for example, all 2,5 million inhabitants of Phnom Penh, including the sick and dying) were forced to move to the countryside, in an ideological effort (not unlike the Great Leap Forward) to create a societal and cultural blank slate on which to build a new, pure, utterly rural society. The Khmer Rouge called this moment, the “Year Zero.”

In the following years there followed one of the most gruesome experiments in mass reeducation and societal re-formation, which resulted in of the greatest genocides of the twentieth century. The main targets of these policies were the middle-class and the educated people – but there was no excuse or escape for any sort of person or group. Religion was banned, normal education ceased, all basic freedoms were abolished. During this period, 1975-1978, thus during only three-four years, it is estimated that about 1,7 million people (in other words, one-fifths of the population) died as a result of executions, torture, forced labor or starvation.

The de facto leader of this newly established  “Democratic Kampuchea” and of the Khmer Rouge forces was Pol Pot. Although Norodom Sihanouk initially entered the country with the Khmer Rouge, and during the first year was the nominal head of state, he spent the next years of Khmer Rouge rule under house arrest, in the royal palace, afterwards stating that he was not aware of the details of what was going on. Five of Sihanouk’s children and a large number of other members of his family lost their lives during this period.

The Khmer Rouge regime‘s bellicose policy was not however restricted to the “internal front”. As a result of a previous disenchantment with the Vietnamese Communist forces, and of reignited – historical – territorial ambitions, and certainly of a pervasive ethno-nationalism, the Khmer Rouge initiated attacks along the borders with Thailand and Laos, and especially against Vietnam. The conflict intensified, leading to the 1979 Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, with the help of internal Cambodian political forces and with the backing of émigré Cambodian leaders (including, by this time, prince Sihanouk, who had left the country).

The 1980s: Isolation and Strife

The Khmer Rouge were removed from power in 1979, and were replaced by a sort of coalition government, that was dependent militarily and economically on Vietnam. The Khmer Rouge forces did not disappear, however; therefore the next decade was defined in Cambodia by economic and physical insecurity, with continued (occasionally brutal) internal conflict,; externally, the position of the country was uncertain as well, given that the Western powers (and especially the US) could not back a Vietnam-propped regime, nor (of course) could they support their enemies, the Khmer Rouge.

During the ’80s Norodom Sihanouk lives mostly abroad, with bases in China and North Korea, while being also very much in the favor of the Western powers, as one of the leading figures of the anti-Vietnamese opposition in exile. This broad support sponsored a lavish lifestyle, Norodom continuing to be present in Western capitals at lavish parties, and to indulge in his pleasures.

With the Cold War coming to an end, and with the dissolution of the Soviet Block in Europe, and with the Vietnamese withdrawing in 1989, the regime crumbled, leading in 1991 to multi-party talks. These negotiations – at which Norodom proved against what a skille dpolitrician he was – ended with the Paris Peace Agreements in which the signatories (including the four major political  groups  of Cambodia, 18 other countries such as USA, China, Australia, Russia, countries of Southeast Asia, as well as representatives of the UN) established a pathway to a return to stable government and to free elections in Cambodia.

A New Cambodia: Norodom Sihanouk, Continued

Following the peace agreements, Sihanouk is again at the center of the political negotiations aiming to form a new government, and he becomes president within the new political arrangement. In 1993 national elections take place, in which over 4 million Cambodians (or 90% of the voting population ) participates. Corresponding to the results of the election, a coalition government is formed, containing  FUNCINPEC (the party emerging from the anti-Vietnamese coalition of the 1980s, lead by Sihanouk’s son), the Cambodian People’s Party – CPP (lead by Hun Sen, who used to be prime minister in the Vietnamese-backed regime of the 1980s) and the Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party – BLDP. Soon after, a democratic constitution is proclaimed that establishes a a multiparty liberal democracy with guaranteed human rights, in the framework of a constitutional monarchy; Norodom Sihanouk is proclaimed king (again).

The 1990s consolidate Cambodia’s internal and external situation, notwithstanding a fractious, disputed, and not always clean (to make an understatement) national political arena. The peculiar political arrangements of the period include a period with two prime-ministers (representing the two main warring factions of the 1990), one of them being Norodom’s son (Ranaridh Sihanouk) and the other being Hun Sen. A frail but necessary arrangement, in order to transition from more than two decades of civil war, to a more stable society; yet not an unproblematic one, with political and even physical  conflict erupting at times, but with no return to the civil war situation.  Another key development of the 1990s is the gradual disassembling and eventual crumbling of the Khmer Rouge forces (eg. Pol Pot is assassinated by his won circle in 1998), and the beginning of the official judicial efforts to bring them to justice (see the Khmer Rouge Tribunal).

The next democratic elections take place in 1998, but these are troubled elections, being preceded by (coup d’etat-like) power fights between CPP and FUNCINPEC, and being accompanied by numerous irregularities and local instances of violence. However, following the election, and being constrained by the results, the two major rival parties reach a coalition agreement and a power-sharing arrangement. In the end, notwithstanding the many problems, the population demonstrated that they have a will, and are intent on showing and imposing it. In the following year, 1999, as a result of the same coalition agreements, and upper house (Senate) is created. In 2003, new elections take place, won by CPP and Hun Sen, who becomes prime minister (again). The 2008 elections, the most regular of all, reinforce and solidify CPP’s domination over the country.

During the 1990s and the early 2000s Norodom Sihanouk (by now, the King Father) is often out of the country, as a result of a prolonged struggle with cancer. Nevertheless, he remained a towering figure in Cambodia throughout, one very involved with the citizens’ lives. He was in fact the first leader in the area to have a personal website.

With an increasingly deteriorating health, Norodom abdicates in 2004, in favor of his son, the little-known ballet dancer Norodom Sihamoni. This does not mean, however, that he will reduce his participation in the Cambodian public sphere; in fact, he will remain a central figure in the life of the country.

Norodom Sihanouk dies on October 15, 2012, in a hospital in Beijing . With him half a century of Southeast Asian politics, including de-colonization, Cold War struggles for influence, ideology-fueled local guerrillas and a changing of the very meaning of the term, “Third World”, seems to be gone.

At the same time, his passing seems to also signal the end of an era of autocratic and eccentric rulers, with lavish resources at their disposal, governing over fascinating, exotic, yet impoverished countries, with much suffering within. (In its obituary, the Telegraph paints a colorful portrait of Sihanouk.) We see fewer and fewer of these rich, Western-supported autocratic rulers going to and fro through the salons of Europe and North America. Politics at its less picturesque – but perhaps for the better. At the same time, the ruling families of the Middle East and the oligarchs of Russia still do their best to spread their wealth, publicly and with emphasis. But perhaps it is only in the context of a Norodom Sihanouk and of other similar leaders, that the figure of a Silvio Berlusconi suddenly starts to make sense: successful, crafty politicians, able to grab or stay around power for decades, while also pursuing a wide range of extracurricular activities (such as writing and singing an entire album of love songs).

Cambodia: Current Political System

The head of state of Cambodia is the monarch, while the head of government is the Prime Minister. The upper house of the legislature is the Senate, which has 59 members (57 elected by Commune Councillors, two by the lower house National Assembly, and two appointed by the King) who enjoy 6-year terms. The 123 members of the lower house, the National Assembly (Radhsphea Ney Preah Recheanachakr Kampuchea), are directly elected through proportional representation (closed party lists) from each of the country’s 21 provinces.


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