Prince Sisowath Thomico was raised in the Royal Palace and grew close to the late King Norodom Sihanouk, a man who he loved like a father. Later he came to work as his personal secretary and was privy to both his private and public faces. Poppy McPherson spoke to the Prince about the King-Father’s relationships, anxieties and passion for jokes.
He had a reputation as a playboy but this was a fake reputation. He was not a big man who would go out and so on. He loved playing music: the clarinet. He always said that he kept count of all the girlfriends and wives that he had. He said: ‘You know, I only had 18 women in my whole life.’ That’s not the kind of playboy you would imagine. He did not have all his wives together: he only had two or three wives at the same time. Afterwards, at the end of the 40s and the beginning of the 50s, he only had two or three wives again. Since the 50s he only had the Queen Mother. He wouldn’t live in a harem.”
“To tell the truth, he was more the father of his people than the father of his children. His children would pay respect to him, just like the children of Cambodia. I remember when I was young, I was in the inner circle and he wouldn’t pay much attention to us. He would have one or two children he would prefer and show more affection for such as Sorya Roeungsay who passed away under the Khmer Rouge, and Princess Kanta Bopha who died at the age of five of leukaemia.
They were his favourite children and both of them were girls. He didn’t pay much attention to the boys. He sent his children to study abroad to China, Yugoslavia, Moscow, Prague. They were not very close to him. Even when his five children passed away under the Khmer Rouge, he cared much more about his people than his own children: his children were just integrated in the casualties of the regime.”
“He complained about being unjustly criticised. People say that what happened with the Khmer Rouge was because of him.
"He said that no, on the contrary, he was the victim. It was not true that he was the leader of the Khmer Rouge: they just took control. After the fall of Phnom Penh in 1975 on many occasions he sent letters to the Khmer Rouge tending his resignation but they always refused because they needed legitimacy. He was the only one who could give them that legitimacy. Everybody was stressed at that time but him more than the others because he was the leader of the separatist movement of which the Khmer Rouge took control.”
“In his later life he brought up the Khmer Rouge many times. That era was the darkest period of his whole life. He was really stressed and traumatised by it. Each time that he would talk about politics and history he would mention that period of time—1970, when he was overthrown, until 1979. Did he mention it with regret? Yes and with sorrow. More sorrow than regret.”
“During his later years in China his routine was simple. He would wake up early around seven o’clock and have breakfast.
He would take care of his correspondence: foreign and Khmer, and instruct his aides as to the replies.
Afterwards we would have lunch: me, the Queen Mother and sometimes his children if they were visiting.
He would not eat much dinner so we never had dinner together except for when we had receptions.
In the evening, he would watch TV, usually news—CNN, French news, Chinese news. He loved American movies—thrillers and horror pictures.
When he was younger he had a movie theatre at home and would invite family, friends and so on over to watch films. At that time he loved action movies and war movies. Erotica as well. At that time, it was not pornography, it was erotica.”
“On many occasions he regretted being a king and a chief of state. He said that if he had to choose, he would have chosen to be a professor. He wanted to be a Latin professor —he loved Latin, he loved Greek, he loved literature. He was an artist, a musician and a movie director as well. He was more of an artist than a ruler. He was caught because of history. It was his fate and destiny. He didn’t choose that destiny.”
“His friends were his fellow political leaders but they all died before him. His closest friends included Kim Il Sung who he used to call his ‘godfather’. He passed away in 1994. He and Kim-Il Sung were very close to each other. They raised political issues but also personal issues and they discussed together like friends do. He had good friends among the European leaders such as Tito but once again Tito passed away before him.”
“He was the funniest man I’ve ever known —even at the end. We all knew that he had heart problems and his heart was very weak but he was not sick. His cancer was completely cured, he was just an old man. He was still lucid. He was making jokes until the day I last saw him: 10 days before he died. He would make fun of everything. When he watched a show with Cambodian singers, he would ask me, ‘how do you like them?’ and ‘do you think they’re sexy?’”
“He changed his mind about being cremated many times. At first he wanted to follow the Cambodia royal tradition of cremation but then he thought it over and he feared being burned. He thought he might be still alive, you see. He feared feeling the heat. He kept asking, ‘isn’t it too hot?’ It was so moving. Afterwards he decided that he would overcome this fear and follow the royal tradition to be cremated. He was a statesman but for us, he was a man—one with weaknesses but also greatness.”
“We had a work relationship but also a family relationship. I had a father and son relationship with him. He would consider me a son because he adopted me after the death of my parents in 1979. But I would consider him the father of the nation: I would never call him papa or daddy because I have too much respect for him. Now I am the ex-assistant to the King-father.
I do not know what I will do now. And I do not care.”