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An historic view of Cambodian-Czech relations

An historic view of Cambodian-Czech relations

This book owes its publication to the enthousiasm and interest of former Czech Ambassador

to Thailand and Cambodia, Dr. Jiri Sitler, an historian himself, who co-authored

the book together with two well-known and respected Indochina specialists in the

Czech Republic, Dr. Miroslav Nozina, a scientist with the Prague Institute of International

Relations, and Mr. Karel Kucera, an associate at the same institute.

The book thoroughly researched in the Czech Diplomatic Archives, as well as in archives

in Cambodia and Europe, begins with the early accounts of Cambodia by Czech missionaries

and geographers, something which is not well-known among students of Cambodian history.

There are beautifully illustrated and compelling accounts of the journeys of these

Czech travellers through the temples of Angkor, the Royal Palaces of Cambodia and

the glamour and glitter of the court of the Kings of Cambodia.

This is followed by an excellent memoir of the work by Professor Emanuel Siblik (1886-1941)

a leading proponent of classical dance between the two world wars, and author of

the book Angkor and its Dancers published in 1929 in Prague. The book was dedicated

to "the exquisite Yth, the first ballerina of King Sisowath (1840-1927), whose

gestures revealed the artistic genius of the Khmer people to me."

The author provided detailed sketches of the dancers' attire, lifestyle and education;

the organization of their dance performances, the music accompaniments and an analysis

and aesthetic of Khmer dances as well as a vivid description of the ambience and


It should be noted that Siblik's work greatly impressed King Sisowath Monivong (1875-1941),

the son of King Sisowath such that he gave him the Royal Order of Monisaraphon, normally

given to Cambodians or foreigners who have done something particularly beneficial

for the arts and literature, as well as sending him a signed copy of a choreographic

poem the King had composed for the Royal Ballet.

After this historical section, the book takes us through the beginning of Czech-Cambodian

diplomatic relations which were established by King Norodom Sihanouk (1941-) as early

as 18 May 1956.

Here it should be noted that the first Czech embassy in Cambodia opened in Phnom

Penh in May 1957, a year after the establishment of diplomatic relations and that

the Embassy in Phnom Penh reported on developments in the neighbouring Kingdom of

Thailand, with which the Czech Republic established relations only in 1974.

The next chapter of the book is consecrated to the exchange of State visits between

King Sihanouk and the leaders of the then Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. Sihanouk

took an unambiguous approach to Communist Czechoslovakia, which was not unlike his

attitudes towards the People's Republic of China and the then Soviet Union: He appreciated

their assistance to Cambodia's development and national reconstruction but did not

try to hide his aversion of Communism.

The authors' quote from a 1964 report by the Czechoslovakian Embassy in Phnom Penh

which stated: "In spite of his patent dislike of Communism, Sihanouk has had

to acknowledge a flawless economic cooperation with the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic,

our readiness to help the Cambodian army, the support of our press for his political

endeavours, which has lost none of its progressive hallmarks in the given situation,

as well as our support in discussing the Cambodian complaints to the UN Security

Council", referring to Czech support for Cambodia's territorial integrity, often

under threat by its neighbours.

This, of course, was not always as reported above, as when in January 1979, Communist

Vietnam invaded Cambodia, the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic sided with Vietnam

and the regime established by them in Phnom Penh and actively denounced Norodom Sihanouk

when he took up the leadership of Cambodia's resistance to Vietnam's aggression.

Another chapter of the book is dedicated to the education of the young Prince Norodom

Sihamoni in Czechoslovakia, which began in May 1962 and who would become in October

2004, His Majesty Samdech Preah Boromneath Norodom Sihamoni, King of Cambodia.

As part of his policy of making as many friends and few enemies for Cambodia, Sihanouk

decided that his children's education was going to be enhanced by sending them to

different countries around the world. Prince Sihamoni was sent to Prague, Princes

Ranariddh and Chakrapong to France, while the late Princes Narindrapong, Naradipo

and Khemanourak were sent respectively to Moscow and Beijing.

This chapter should be of particular interest to scholars and diplomats seeking to

know more about the younger years of King Norodom Sihamoni. It is amply illustrated

with photos of the young prince studying in Prague, being a "Young Pioneer"

and meeting the Czech President for tea; doing gymnastics and theatre and, of course,

ballet. Obviously, the young prince enjoyed his stay in the Czechoslovak Socialist


Yet, his stay in the land of the Czechs was not without some upheaval. In 1968, for

instance, while the Prague Spring took place, the young prince was back in Phnom

Penh visiting his parents. When Soviet troops invaded Czechoslovakia on 21 August

1968, they were concerned and reluctant to send their son back to Prague. In the

event, after repeated assurances by the Czechoslovak Ambassador to Cambodia, he was

allowed to return on 22 September 1968.

Then in March 1970, while his father, King Sihanouk, was in France for a regular

health check, he was deposed by General Lon Nol and Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak.

The fact that the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic maintained its embassy in Phnom

Penh while having discreet, informal relations with the new government established

by Sihanouk in Beijing must have been distressing for the young prince.

On 25 March 1970, the Cambodian Ambassador to Prague informed the Czech authorities

that in view of the events in Cambodia and the fact the the embassy had sided with

Lon Nol, Prince Sihamoni was no longer welcome to stay at the residence of the Cambodian


The future King, therefore, went to live with the family of Mrs. Milada Novotna,

Head Mistress of his school in Prague and also with her daughter's family, where

he stayed until 1975 when he completed his studies and returned to Cambodia. But

his links with the country remained and he visited after he was freed from Pol Pot's


The book also has chapters on events in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge period and

after the Vietnamese invasion in 1979. It is superbly illustrated and highly recommended

to anyone wishing to learn more about King Sihamoni's early years and about Cambodian-Czech


The book has 188 pages and ten chapters and numerous photos in colour and black and

white as well as reproductions of ancient documents. It can be ordered from the Embassy

of the Czech Republic in Bangkok.

Ambassador Julio A. Jeldres is King Norodom Sihanouk's Official Biographer and a

Research Fellow at Monash University's Asia Institute in Melbourne, Australia.


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