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The last Khmer god-king

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The late Norodom Sihanouk speaks at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh in October last year. Pha Lina

Norodom Sihanouk Varman was a giant among political giants.

Fondly known as Samdech Euv by the older generation and Samdech Ta by the younger generation, he was the last Khmer god-king, the lofty epithet bestowed on Khmer monarchs during the Angkor era.

After the Maharaja of Zabag (Java) invaded Chenla, probably around 780 to 800AD, he chose an unknown Khmer prince named Jayavarman II to replace the decapitated Chenla king.

A few years after taking the throne, Jayavarman II renamed the country Kambuja and declared his independence from Java on Mount Mahendra (Phnom Kulen) in 802 through a ritual performed by
his purihota (chief Brahman).

This ceremony would elevate Jayavarman II from a simple king to a Chakravatin (universal ruler) who ruled Kambuja as a Devaraja (god-king).

Jayavarman II may have begun the ritual of Preah Khan Reach (“sacred sword”) that was used for the consecration of a new king when he ascended the throne.

Norodom Sihanouk Varman was the last Khmer king to accede the throne according to the Devaraja ceremony. Like Jayavarman II, he was an unknown prince when chosen by the French to take the throne on April 25, 1941. The French saw in the 18-year-old a person they could manipulate to fit their colonial rule.

Just as Jayavarman II had done, King Norodom Sihanouk declared Cambodia’s independence from France on  March 13, 1945, but it was short-lived; after World War 2, the French returned to rule over Cambodia again.

After a “royal crusade for independence” that took the king to France, the US, Canada and Japan, and into self-imposed “exile” in Siem Reap, the French reluctantly agreed to his demand for Cambodia’s independence.

King Norodom Sihanouk returned to Phnom Penh in triumph, and Khmer Independence Day was proclaimed on November 9, 1953.

Recognising that for Cambodia to prosper, it must model itself on Switzerland, the king declared Cambodia’s neutrality in Geneva in 1954.

King Norodom Sihanouk abdicated in March, 1955 in favour of his father, Prince Norodom Suramarit, so he could enter politics and chart a course for Cambodia.

He became head of state and founded the Sangkum Reastr Niyum, a populist party dedicated to modernising Cambodia and bringing it to prosperity.

Cambodia would have prospered after independence if it had been left alone, but it was caught between forces beyond its control.

America’s fight against communism caused Cambodia to become involved in the Vietnam war,  thwarting the efforts of Prince Sihanouk, who had worked so hard to keep the country at peace.

Sihanouk wanted Cambodia to become the Switzerland of Asia, but the superpowers, for their own selfish interests, would not allow it.

Cambodia went through some economic hardship, but remained relatively peaceful until the overthrow of the prince as head of state.

The coup d’état of March 18, 1970 by Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak and General Lon Nol, his most trusted ally, ended Cambodia’s monarchy and replaced it with a republican government.

A Khmer republic was officially declared on October 9, 1970, and the National Assembly sentenced the prince to death in absentia.

Coerced by the Chinese, he made an alliance with the Khmer Rouge.

The Lon Nol government that brought Cambodia into the Vietnam war collapsed after the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975.

The Khmer Rouge renamed Cambodia Democratic Kampuchea and Sihanouk was put under house arrest. He would have been killed if not for the intervention of Chinese prime minister Zhou Enlai, who told Khieu Samphan that Sihanouk was the link between the people and the revolution.

Vietnam invaded Cambodia on December 25, 1978. On the eve of Democratic Kampuchea’s collapse on January 7, 1979, a Chinese plane came to rescue the prince and take him to China. Vietnam installed a new Cambodian government called the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK).

Once again, Sihanouk had to make an “alliance with the devil”, in this case the Khmer Rouge, to liberate Cambodia from Vietnam’s yoke.

In April, 1989, the National Ass-embly voted to rename the PRK the State of Cambodia — Roat Kampuchea. Vietnam finally agreed to negotiate its withdrawal from Cambodia.

This event resulted in the Paris Conference on Cambodia in October, 1991. Sihanouk, who had been elected chairman of the Supreme National Council, represented Cambodia.

The other main participants were the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, the six members of ASEAN, Yugoslavia (representing the non-aligned nations), and Vietnam, Laos, Japan, India, Australia and Canada

The conference resulted in a comprehensive political settlement, and an agreement known as the Paris Peace Agreements was signed on October 23, 1991. Prince Sihanouk was vindicated and re-entered Cambodia as a hero.

The constitutional monarchy was established on September 24, 1993 and Prince Norodom Sihanouk was reinstated as king of Cambodia.

Because of poor health, King Norodom Sihanouk abdicated on October 7, 2004. After his abdication, the National Assembly voted unanimously to bestow on him the title of “The Great King-Hero, Father of Independence, of Territorial Integrity and of National Unity”.

The journey of Norodom Sihanouk is fit for a Shakespearean play. He had been to the mountain top, he had walked the deepest valley, he had been betrayed by those he trusted, he had been loyal to his friends, but he never gave up fighting for the country and his people.

As he put it, “I experienced everything, won everything, lost everything, I saw wrong, I’ve seen too early, I have not seen the dagger stabbed in my back, I was mistaken, I often lied, I have told a lot of truth, too much truth.”

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