Outspoken royal Prince Sisowath Thomico speaks about the monarchy, the 1968 riots, and why he still opposes the KRT
Prince Thomico in his house on the grounds of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, where he lived as a child.
Tell me a little bit about your own past. Where did you grow up?
I went to France in 1956, and I spent only one year studying in Cambodia - in 1969. In 1968, I joined in the demonstrations with the French students and my parents did not really appreciate it, my going around with the leftist students, so they sent me back to Cambodia for a year. Otherwise, I did all my studies in France.
Did the 1968 demonstrations in France leave an impression?
I joined a Trotskyist group at the time, and all my thoughts - especially my political thinking - was marked by my experience of the 1968 events. My readings were in French, revolutionary people like Danton, Robespierre, Saint Just and afterwards Marx and Hegel. I was deeply and profoundly marked by my experiences.
When the Khmer Rouge took over in Cambodia in 1975, and your family was caught up in that, did your political views change?
I never believed in the Khmer Rouge, never. Even though I was considered an ultra-leftist, I never agreed with the direction the Khmer Rouge took, from the very beginning. I was non-violent, such as the French anarchist Proudhon, and I never believed that the use of violence could bring something new to the world.
Was it apparent at the time that the Khmer Rouge were as bad as later became obvious?
Many French philosophers, such as Andre Glucksman, backed the KR. Even I, in my own family and among my own friends, had a lot of big problems explaining the country was going in a good direction, but at that time the world was either black or white, it was either the free world against the communist world.
It was very difficult for me to explain myself, even with my own father. [In] late 1975, I drove my father to the airport - he was going back to Cambodia to be a diplomat for the KR, since he had joined up with Prince Sihanouk when he was overthrown in 1970. After he left France we had no news from him until the beginning of the 1980s, when people were coming out from Boeung Trabek [Prison] and arrived in France with news from him.
The last thing that my father told me was to apologise to me, and to say, ‘I'm sorry, I misunderstood you'. From my father, it is something I will never forget. I was the one who should have said I am sorry.
Following that period, in the early 1980s, did you return immediately to Cambodia?
No, I joined then-Prince Sihanouk in the fight against the Vietnamese occupation as one of the main leaders and founders of the Funcinpec party. I was appointed as the representative to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, but I had many contacts and exchanges with the resistance.
I was in touch with them even before Funcinpec was created, and it was only natural for me to go on talking with them about some of the political issues, such as the future of Cambodia after the victory, and the solution to the Cambodian problem.
Funcinpec and the Son Sann group [KPNLF] were in nominal alliance with the Khmer Rouge during this period. Did that worry you at all?
That was not until 1982. The KPNLF was created on October 9, 1979. At that time, Prince Sihanouk was asked to lead the KP, but just because it was founded on the October 9, which was the anniversary of the declaration of the republic in Cambodia in 1970. Just for that reason, Sihanouk could not lead the KP. October 9 was not chosen by Son Sann himself. It was imposed on him by the Thais: At that time they did not want to see Prince Sihanouk around, and they tried to drive him away.
In your time at the palace, how have you seen the role of the monarchy change?
The Cambodian royal family has always been very involved in contemporary politics. My uncle, Prince Yuthevong, was the founder of the Democratic Party and headed [it] in the first elections in 1947, when the Democrats won and he became prime minister. Another prince, Prince Norodom Monireth, was the head of the Liberal Party and also became prime minister at that time.
I want the royal family to stand as a symbol of Cambodian unity, and I have to say that King Sihamoni has done a great job ever since he was elected. First of all, he changed the way the monarchy was thought of by the people in Cambodia. The only figure that people had in mind was King Sihanouk, and Sihanouk was a tremendous personality in Cambodian politics as well as on the international stage, so it was very difficult to succeed him. [Sihamoni] has given another direction to the monarchy: He is not involved in politics, he has never made any comment about the political situation. And that's the way the king should be. King Sihanouk is a special case, a very special case.
Some people in the ruling party have said just that - that it drags down the King if royals get involved in politics.
Until 2006, when I created my own party [the Sangkum Jatiniyum Front Party], I was not involved in politics, I just wrote papers stating my own point of views. But I was threatened at that time, around 2005, and I was just a private secretary to King Sihanouk. On the one hand, the CPP cannot say that the royalists should stay away from politics and then on the other threaten them when they give their vision of Cambodian society and politics. I have to be respected for what I say, otherwise I will have to be involved just to give me a justification.
Was Sihanouk's abdication the end of an era, in terms of the involvement of the royals in politics?
[They succeeded] because they only used King Sihanouk's name, instead of explaining his vision. The main difference between 1960s Cambodia and today's Cambodia is the lack of vision. During the 1950s and 1960s Cambodia had a vision: that was the reason that Cambodia was seen as a model.
Lee Kuan Yew, after Singapore gained independence in 1965, declared he wanted to develop Singapore on the Cambodian model. It was a real compliment from somebody who has been leading Singapore since then. Just compare Singapore now and Cambodia now, and where Cambodia could have been if there were no war and if Prince Sihanouk was not overthrown in 1970. Now we have a strong leader, but I'm not sure that Cambodia has a vision. It looks to me like Cambodia is just a big vessel, floating on the sea, going here and there.
I have heard that you are planning to start a new royalist party. Are these plans still on the cards?
If royals can be respected for what they say and what they do, then it is useless for me to get involved in politics. I can just give lectures and so on, sharing my vision about what has to be done. But if it is not accepted, and if I am threatened for what I do, then the only way around for me is to set up my own political party, just to have the possibility to defend my ideas. And so far there is no sign of the royals being respected, so I am still thinking of setting up my own party.
You've have been quite outspoken in your views about the Khmer Rouge tribunal that had you removed from Funcinpec last year. Is that something you regret?
No, not at all. I don't believe in the KRT. I think that spending US$100 million just to try Duch is a big problem, because I don't think Khieu Samphan, Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary and Ieng Thirith will ever be tried. We have two million victims of the KR era, but we don't have the means to determine responsibility. Those people have been put in jail ever since 2006. I feel that they will be left in jail until their death, and the only one that will be tried is Duch, because we have testimonies.
The second reason is that Cambodia used to be colonised by France [which claimed] it had a duty to colonise under-developed countries, to bring them "civilisation". And to me, it appears the KRT is just another way to bring "civilisation" to Cambodia, because the KRT was not asked for by the Cambodian people; it was imposed as part of the so-called "international moral order".
But the international moral order should cope with Darfur before taking care of our own history. In 1977, it was known to every Western government that the genocide was going on in Cambodia, and the international community did nothing to stop it.
Interview by Sebastian Strangio