Norodom Sihanouk (R) and Jawaharlal Nehru in Phnom Penh in October 1954. Photograph supplied
I was overwhelmed and amazed by the outpouring of grief for the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk, and by the respect and honour with which he is regarded by the people of Cambodia.
As a youngster, like many other Indians who read the news, I knew Prince Norodom Sihanouk as a flamboyant and fascinating personality who brought Cambodia to the world’s notice.
But mostly, we knew him as a close friend of our first prime minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru.
Sihanouk considered Nehru, in his own words, as “my greatest friend”.
He considered Nehru his political teacher, and many ascribe Sihanouk’s decision to remain non-aligned to the advice he got from Nehru during his visit to India.
In fact, the King Father was the last survivor of the group of great leaders who were the architects of the Non-Aligned Movement.
At a banquet in New Delhi held in his honour in 1963, Sihanouk said: “It was by studying his (Nehru’s) methods and teachings, and by following his sage counsels, that I was able to decide upon a course of action that has assured our independence and national unity, together with peaceful internal conditions and the respect of our sovereignty.”
There is a very interesting story about how, and why, Nehru paid a visit to Cambodia in 1954.
In fact, Nehru was the first head of government to visit the newly independent nation.
The story goes that a message was received by the Cambodian government from Delhi, requesting overflight clearance for the aircraft carrying the prime minister of India on his way to visit Vietnam.
When King Norodom Sihanouk heard of this, he sent back a message saying that Cambodia would not give clearance for the aircraft unless Nehru agreed to visit Cambodia as well.
Nehru immediately replied that he would be delighted to do so.
Although I could find no records of this episode, I asked King Norodom Sihamoni during my credentials ceremony about the veracity of this episode, and he confirmed to me that it had indeed occurred.
Nehru, for his part, had a special fondness for King Sihanouk and, given their gap in age, considered him a younger brother and used to advise him as such.
It was Nehru who introduced Zhou Enlai to Prince Sihanouk in Bandung, Indonesia, marking the beginning of another long and close friendship.
One of the many stories about the close relationship between Nehru and Sihanouk is that in 1954, when Nehru visited Cambodia, Son Ngoc Thanh, a long-standing opponent of Sihanouk, went to meet Nehru to try to influence him and obtain his support.
According to King Sihanouk, Nehru told Thanh very clearly to work closely with Sihanouk and not to try and chart a separate path.
It was unfortunate that Thanh did not listen to Nehru — and the rest is history.
Norodom Sihanouk had great pride in Cambodia and the Cambodian people, but at the same time always felt a close link to India.
During his 1955 visit, he said, “We (India and Cambodia) are cousins” and that “Khmer civilisation is the child of India’s civilisation, and we are proud of it.”
Although he asserted the greatness of the Khmer civilisation, Sihanouk had no qualms about accepting historical Indian influence.
While dedicating a boulevard in Phnom Penh to Nehru in 1965, he said: “The first navigators, Indian merchants and Brahmins brought to our ancestors their gods, their techniques, their organisation. Briefly, India was for us what Greece was to the Latin Occident.”
In the end, there is no denying that an era has come to a close.
Norodom Sihanouk was a great son of Cambodia who was loved and respected by his people.
He was a great stalwart and statesman who brought recognition and pride to his country.
We in India will always have warm memories of this wonderful man and his great friendship with Nehru.
Dinesh K Patnaik is India’s ambassador to the Kingdom of Cambodia.