Recently declassified CIA documents reveal that the agency had a less than flattering opinion of the late King Norodom Sihanouk, predicting that his vanity and pride would inevitably lead to the dissolution of his partnership with the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front (KPNLF).
“He is still capable of pulling off one of his patented ‘grand gestures’ that could seriously complicate or even totally undermine ASEAN’s current Cambodia strategy,” a 1985 intelligence report reads.
During the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge, Vietnam installed a new government in the form of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK), led by Heng Samrin and current Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Fearing Vietnamese influence, Sihanouk formed an unlikely alliance with the remnants of the Khmer Rouge – which had held him under house arrest for years – and the non-communist KPNLF, serving as the group’s president. But, the coalition was far from strong.
“Sihanouk’s occasional flirtations with the Heng Samrin regime and his frequent use of resignation threats as political leverage have worsened the mutual distrust between the coalition factors,” the 1985 report claims.
The report goes on to say that Sihanouk’s allies put increasing restrictions on his negotiating powers and often completely ignored his suggestions.
“We believe Sihanouk views these kinds of responses to his diplomatic manoeuvring as personal slights. They either provoke threats to resign or bouts of brooding during which Sihanouk withdraws from an active role in the coalition,” the report reads.
The CIA believed that ultimately the coalition would collapse and Sihanouk would reach a reluctant agreement with Heng Samrin and Hun Sen, despite accusing them of being Vietnamese pawns.
A 1988 CIA report confirms this prediction, saying when Sihanouk finally did commit to negotiating with Hun Sen, he still claimed that “talking to Hun Sen is the same as talking to Vietnam”, and said Hun Sen was “on a short Vietnamese leash”.
Sihanouk finally made good on his threats and resigned from the coalition in 1990, precipitating its official dissolution in 1993.
Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, believes that the dissolution of the coalition and eventual political victory of the PRK was inevitable.
“I don’t see Sihanouk as being responsible,” he said, claiming that the key historical factor was the defection of former Khmer Rouge leaders like Hun Sen. At that point, the only two possibilities were Chinese rule or Vietnamese rule.
“A new environment had formed and driven Cambodia into that direction,” he said.
The CIA documents do recognise broader factors at play outside of Sihanouk’s control, such as his military disadvantage and drying up international support.
But that didn’t stop them from taking one last shot at the ruler.
“He would have to be assured of the flattery and deferential treatment he believes is owed him in recognition of the unique role he plays in Cambodia’s destiny.”