King Father Norodom Sihanouk has held so many positions since 1941 that the Guinness
Book of World Records identifies him as the politician who has occupied the world's
greatest variety of political offices.
Now, his latest position as King Father has raised a new controversy regarding whether
he can be required to testify about his knowledge of the Khmer Rouge era at the long-delayed
Although some contend that Sihanouk's continuing head of state immunity is "illegitimate,
unconstitutional and indefensible," leading members of the CPP and FUNCINPEC
both said the former King is protected by the principle of lèse majesté
and cannot be called to testify.
"He is the Father of the Nation," said Son Soubert, King Norodom Sihamoni's
appointee at the Constitutional Council. "Even though he is retired, he retains
the status of Head of State and so the King Father is not obliged to testify at the
court unless he decides to from his own will."
Sihanouk, 85, retired by officially abdicating as King on October 7, 2004. His son
Norodom Sihamoni was later named King to succeed him.
Upon his abdication, the Cambodian parliament conferred upon Sihanouk the title of
"Great and Valorous King" enabling him to retain the same privileges and
immunities as those constitutionally conferred upon the reigning monarch. This was
subsequently enshrined in the Law on the Titles and Privileges of the Former King
and Queen of Cambodia on October 29, 2004.
This week the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) issued a statement saying that
parliament cannot confer such immunity. "Our constitution bestows on the King,
the reigning King, immunity," said Lao Mong Hay, senior researcher at AHRC.
"No one else has this immunity. Even with a constitutional amendment there would
be no moral authority to the immunity obtained, and to go down this path would set
a very dangerous precedent."
Sihanouk has not yet been called upon by prosecutors at the ECCC to testify.
But he stirred up the matter himself August 30 by sending an unusual invitation to
Peter Foster, the United Nations Assistance to the Khmer Rouge Trial (UNAKRT) spokesman.
The invitation asked Foster and anyone else interested at the UN to come to the Royal
Palace for a "conversation" on "the affairs of the Khmer Rouge and
Sihanouk." The invitation is for Saturday September 8, from 9 to noon.
"After this it will no longer be necessary for me to present myself before the
UN's ECCC," the invitation said. The note added that if the UN did not accept
the invitation to meet Saturday, the King Father "will not accept to see, speak
or correspond with the UN's ECCC."
Foster said this week the UN responded to the King Father's invitation on Thursday,
but the contents of the response weren't made public.
"I have not been authorized to take part in such a discussion," Foster
told the Post on September 5. "It is not up to me personally - this is not an
issue between me and the King Father, it is a judicial issue."
In a September 5 statement, the King Father complained that the ECCC wanted him to
"take an oath to tell the truth, nothing but the truth on the subject of arch
"My 'oath'...I have taken already, today, in front of five superior Buddhist
Monks and especially in front of statues and statuettes of Buddha. I do not have
to swear an oath after [the one I swore] with Buddha, to debase myself to take an
oath in front of the ECCC."
"Concerning the Khmer Rouge atrocities when Pol Pot, Ieng Sary, and Khieu Samphan
were in power....I know that these Khmer Rouge took away five of my children, 14
of my grand-children, the Prince N. Phurissara and [his] family, Prince S. Methavi
and [his] family."
The King Father concluded by saying "I have already said everything. That means
all that I know. I have nothing else to say to the UN's ECCC and so that they stop
bothering me with this 'Khmer Rouge Tribunal Affair' I don't owe anything to the
But King Father Norodom Sihanouk has plenty to tell.
According to the Historical Dictionary of Cambodia, when his regime was overthrown
by Lon Nol in 1970, Sihanouk was out of the country on his way to Beijing. The Chinese
government offered him support to fight his way back to power.
From Beijing, he urged Cambodians to take up arms against Lon Nol and became president
of the nominal Royal Government of National Unity of Kampuchea (GRUNK). Sihanouk
spent most of 1970 to 1975 in Beijing.
When the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh in April 1975, Lon Nol had already fled,
but Sihanouk did not return to Cambodia immediately. He returned in September, according
to the same source, as leader of GRUNK. But the KR dissolved GRUNK in 1976 and Sihanouk
was largely under house arrest throughout this period.
In 1979 the king avoided capture by Vietnamese-backed invading forces by fleeing
Phnom Penh with the withdrawing Khmer Rouge. He resurfaced in Beijing. He urged the
United Nations not to recognize the new government of Heng Samrin. He later moved
to Pyongyang as the guest of Kim Il Sung. Sihanouk returned to Cambodia in November
1991 and he became King in September 1993.
The King Father's invitation to Foster was triggered by an August 29 news report
in which Foster said that it was up to the court's judicial officers to decide who
to call as witnesses and who to indict. He was responding to the call by a little
known U.S. based human rights NGO called the Cambodian Action Committee for Justice
and Equality (CACJE) which issued a statement August 20 calling for the King's immunity
to be overturned.
CACJE is run by Sourn Serey Ratha, former Editor-in-Chief of Beehive Radio. On its
website, www.ssrth.wordpress.com, is a letter it sent to "Mr Norodom Sihanouk,"
questioning Sihanouk's role in the emergence of the Khmer Rouge. It claims he betrayed
his people, provided "cheap" leadership and changed allegiances in an attempt
to maintain a lavish Royal lifestyle.
"You never speak the truth," the letter reads. "Your actions should
be judged by the Khmer people....In the next life you should be reborn in a country
you have pleased more than Cambodia - Vietnam maybe."
Sihanouk had said previously that he would be willing to testify at a court so his
new position represents a change of heart, said Mong Hay.
Soubert said Sihanouk's invite reflects a long-standing distrust of the ECCC.
"He believes that [the ECCC] will not really bring justice to Cambodia,"
he said. "He has always said he would rather have a court in The Hague."
Prince Sisowath Thomico, a member of FUNCINPEC, also said the King Father doesn't
have much faith in the ECCC.
"He is protected by constitutional immunity so it would be unlawful for him
to testify," Thomico said. "It is a problem of procedure - can the UN sponsored
court even receive his testimony?"
Thomico said that the process of documenting what Sihanouk experienced and knew during
the Khmer Rouge regime, even if it is done in an informal meeting, would further
the broader aim of creating a historical record and furthering national unity.
But a conversation about what happened is not the same as being questioned under
oath in a court room, said Mong Hay.
"This invitation is a political gesture on part of the king," he said.
"It is not part of court procedure. If not done in court, the interviews or
evidence provided at the time should not be taken to account, they will have no legal
Mong Hay said the King Father doesn't want to testify because he might face difficult
cross examination by foreign lawyers. "If he were to face cross examination
as a witness the King Father could be made to reveal something people would rather
remain hidden. It could be like opening Pandora's box." The fact the government
has sprung to the defence of the King Father's right to immunity is a further indication
he may have something to hide, said Mong Hay.
The President of the National Assembly, Heng Samrin, defended the King Father's right
to immunity. Cheam Yeap, CPP parliamentarian, said it would be illegal to make him
testify and that the King Father's offer to invite interested parties to meet with
him is sufficient.