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Sihanouk’s greatest feat

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A king for the people: Norodom Sihanouk greets a crowd in Siem Reap province in 1997. Photograph: Reuters

A young prince who has just inherited a principality — through whatever means — would do well to heed sound counsel from the learned ones.

Having studied the reasons for the success and failure of many legendary leaders, from ancient Greek times until 16th-century Florence, the Italian politician and philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli believed he had just such counsel.

In his renowned work, "The Prince", this great thinker summed up in 26 short chapters (an average of four pages each) all the tactics that a leader must use, or consider using, in order to hold on to his power.

Among the best known are the following prescriptions: it is better that a prince be feared than loved (Chapter 17); and a prince should not keep promises if doing so would be to his disadvantage, or when the reasons for making promises no longer exist (Chapter 18).

Apparently, a prince should be, as long as the need to keep his state would require, both merciless and lawless. Is that really so?

If one carefully reads "The Prince", however, it will become abundantly clear that Machiavelli never intended for a prince to be either merciless or lawless.

On the contrary, there are plentiful references to what he called virtues (personal abilities) that a prince must possess.

Thus, a virtuous prince should be generous, merciful, trustworthy, fierce and bold, humane, chaste, upright, severe, serious and religious (Chapter 15).

Students of the history of political thought might ask whether Cambodia has ever had a prince endowed with all these virtues.

Although we can readily recall the name of Jayavarman VII, we know little about his personal character except that it was said the suffering of his subjects made him suffer more than his own suffering and that, as a typical Buddhist type of king, he would, according to the theory, practise the so-called 10 high laws.

By way of comparison, the majority of middle-aged Cambodians could easily recite all the major events attached to the life and sacrifices of King Sihanouk.

The actual year of Jayavarman VII’s death remains unsettled, but the huge crowds standing along the streets mourning the death of Sihanouk only confirmed how deeply he was loved by all. It seems that he had chosen to be loved rather than feared.

On the other hand, he also kept his promises. For instance, he promised to regain full independence from the French (even within a defined period of time!) and he did just that.

To many observers, Sihanouk’s royal crusade for independence would rank as his most important achievement, and rightly so.

But I would argue that his greatest achievement is something else. For although history is subject to interpretation, Sihanouk’s love for his people could never be denied.

And the people loved him back.

Indeed, by nurturing an intimate friendship with his subjects – an act that all the previous Cambodian kings had been unable to perform equally – Sihanouk firmly established himself not simply as a virtuous prince but also as one whom anyone could approach.

His charisma was most memorably evident at his regular audiences and congress, during which he allowed people of modest means to freely express their requests and have them satisfied.

An enduring image of an almighty king-judge of ancient times – except that this judge would side with the people all the time.

In 1947, after nearly a century of oppression from the French, Sihanouk provided his people with a Constitution under which they would enjoy freedom of expression for the first time.

In 1993, in another Constitution, Sihanouk once more promulgated the supreme law that essentially ensures freedom of expression for the people.

If history can be any guide, the surest foundation of a king’s power resides in his ability to maintain a close and loyal relationship with his subjects.

Norodom Sihanouk excelled at this like nobody else – and that is by far his greatest achievement.

Dr Virak Prum is the Dean of Law at Phnom Penh’s Puthisastra University.

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