King Norodom Sihanouk died on Monday in Beijing. Alive, he was often misunderstood, especially in the West where they mistook his apparent volte-face for instability.
History will tell that he was one of the great sovereigns of recent times. The West berated him for believing he was indispensable to his people.
But all good kings must identify with their people – His Majesty King Bhumibol of Thailand is the most magnificent example of this.
When the French chose him to be the king of Cambodia, their protectorate, they thought he would be easy to manipulate, that he was a young playboy interested only in American actresses and basketball.
How wrong they were.
After a few years of trials and tribulations, he became obsessed with the independence of his kingdom and launched his non-violent campagne pour l’independence.
He achieved this independence without firing a shot in 1953, before Vietnam and Laos gained theirs.
But Sihanouk was not interested in being king – he wanted to enter politics. Accordingly, he resigned and became Prince Sihanouk, Monseigneur Papa, to his people (Samdech Euv in Cambodian), the closest English equivalent of which is His Excellency Father.
He proved an able politician, manoeuvring with incredible ability amid the difficulties of post-colonial Southeast Asian politics.
His hero was General Charles de Gaulle, the first Frenchman to resist Nazi occupation of his country in 1940.
Sihanouk followed the advice given by de Gaulle in his historic speech at the Phnom Penh Olympic Stadium in 1966: Stay neutral, and don’t get involved in the Indochina war.
I met Sihanouk for the first time on April 4, 1963, after he left Pyongyang to France, where his father possessed a small two-room villa in Grasse, in the Cote d’Azur. Sihanouk’s “palace”, as the Left loved to call it, was very modest, along the main road, facing a noisy garage specialising in revamping old tyres. The smell was often terrible.
He offered me a glass of coke; Princess Monique was in the kitchen preparing a Chinese soup. The only servant, an old man, was sleeping in the garage. There was no car, no dame de compagnie, and no money.
As we took some pictures in the little garden, he showed me his empty pocket, and said: “This is my pride. You can accuse me of everything you want, but never of having stolen one penny from my people.”
He lived off a modest pension given to him by the new president of France, Francois Mitterrand, and a few gifts sent by Cambodians who had escaped the Khmer Rouge regime.
One day he managed to sell his “palace” and moved to a small villa located a few blocks away, named Villa Kanta Bopha after his favourite daughter who had died of leukemia at a young age. When his book Souvenir Doux et Amer (Bittersweet Memories) came out, I wrote a long article on it at the request of Suthichai Yoon, editor of The Nation. Somebody sent a copy to Sihanouk in North Korea and he sent me a warm response. That’s how we first met.
There were to be many visits after. He sent me a long letter inviting my wife Shirley and I to have lunch with him and the princess. “Now I can finally treat you as you deserve,” he wrote.
We attended, and he was absolutely charming.
After the signing of the tripartite accord between the three Cambodian factions – the Khmer Rouge, the republican Son Sann and the royalist Funcinpec party – in Kuala Lumpur in 1982, Sihanouk finally decided to visit Thailand.
But ACM Siddhi Savetsila, the foreign Thai minister at the time, was afraid Sihanouk would be unwelcome in Bangkok after the International Court of Justice had in 1962 decided that Preah Vihear temple belonged to Cambodia. So Sihanouk’s arrival was delayed; he waited in Penang.
I sent at his request a cable to a friend at the US Embassy in Bangkok, Ed MacWilliams.
John Gunter Dean, the US ambassador, went to see ACM Siddhi and convinced him that it would not be good for Thailand and the ASEAN image if the impression was given that the tripartite agreement was a bad thing.
So Sihanouk was eventually able to arrive in Thailand and was sent discreetly to the Erawan Hotel in Bangkok.
Upon his arrival, he made a point, as he always did, to shake everybody’s hand – including the two motorcycle riders in his escort and the hotel porter. The latter knelt down and kissed Sihanouk’s hand. Everyone applauded, and from then on Sihanouk was welcomed by a large crowd of well-wishers wherever he went.
It took many years to win peace in Cambodia; many conferences, many meetings, many false starts. But it finally came in Paris in 1991, and Sihanouk made a triumphant return to his dear country.
Sihanouk became king again. Not that he wanted to, but for Hun Sen and the Cambodian People’s Party, it was a nice way to kick him upstairs, and neutralise his enormous political power.
But his people never forgot him. I’m sure that an enormous crowd will attend his funeral.
Two years ago I worked on a French television film called The Nine Lives of Norodom Sihanouk.
One of the persons interviewed, my old and dear friend Chack Sarik, said: “When Sihanouk was ruling Cambodia we were in peace, we had enough money to live comfortably and were happy. Do you know a better, more glorious epitaph for any politician?”
Jacques Bekaert is a former writer for the Bangkok Post.