In commemoration of the late King Father, the Post staff sat down with some of the relatives and compatriots, journalists and scholars who best knew Norodom Sihanouk to get their take on the man, the monarch and the legacy he leaves behind.
Included below are extended interviews with or tributes from:
- Pung Chhiv Kek
- Jacques Bekaert
- Chea Vannath
- Milton Osborne
- Son Soubert
- Elizabeth Becker
- James Gerrand
- Julio Jeldres
- Ang Choulean
- Premjith Sadasivan
- Prince Norodom Ranariddh
Prince Sisowath Thomico meets King Father Norodom Sihanouk at the Royal Palace in 2006. Photograph: James Gerrand
Pung Chhiv Kek
Some international and Cambodian scholars have cast a doubt on King Sihanouk’s legacy, especially due to his connection to the Khmer Rouge after 1970. But in Cambodia, the popular feeling is that the Kingdom was quiet ;peaceful before 1970 and chaotic after. This is still the common;understanding.
People in the countryside were exhilarated by the King’s frequent visits, even to the most remotes places and the poorest families.
Until I left Cambodia to study in France, in 1964, what I experienced was an emerging, dynamic and diverse industry, efficient healthcare, developed with;the assistance of France, which also laid the basis for a reliable education system open to all, with a real independent selection capacity, vocational and academic training, which Prince Sihanouk and my father were keen to preserve and develop.
In addition, the King, who was also a tireless worker with a positive international image, especially among the non-aligned, made a decisive contribution to Cambodia’s independence. He was active in achieving recognition of Preah Vihear Temple’s clear Cambodian legacy by the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
At the end of the 1980s, Prince Sihanouk responded with heart to the desire for reconciliation expressed by the Phnom Penh government and Samdech Hun Sen, who were keen to push the country into a new era after the Vietnamese occupation.
Thanks to the cooperation between King Sihanouk, the Royal Family and Samdech Hun Sen, the Cambodian monarchy, the historical and spiritual backbone of the country, is still in a good shape. It’s stable and reliable, ready to play its constitutional role, with King Sihamoni in charge well since 2004.
Finally, I remember the King as very gentle to my daughters, when I happened to visit my parents in Beijing and North Korea, at the very end of April 1975. I was also very moved and grateful to him, when he came along with the Queen, to himself light the fire of my mother’s cremation, in 2001.
Dr Pung Chhiv Kek, is the president of Licadho and a leading human-rights figure in Cambodia.
In early February 1979, when I first went to the Thai-Cambodian border, I encountered one of the very first groups of Cambodian refugees - mostly women and children. At that time, there was little clear delimitation of the exact location of the border. I walked with them to a small Thai village, where they rested. A kind Thai policeman brought them water and called a Khmer translator from a nearby “open” camp, housing former soldiers of the Lon Nol army who in April 1975 had escaped the Khmer Rouge.
The first question these refugees asked me was: “Where is Papa?”
The translator explained that they were talking about Sihanouk, about Samdech Euv, whom they considered the father of the country and their Supreme Father. While many at the time believed that the key to the anti-Vietnamese coalition would be former republicans like Son Sann, to most Cambodians, Sihanouk was the most important man.
In public, Sihanouk was sometimes his own worst enemy, because of his high-pitched voice, his gestures (he reminded me of many Italians I met, talking with his hands), a style unfamiliar to many Westerners and Asians. In private, of course, he was quieter; he could say things he would refrain from expressing in public. He was sometimes very critical of the United States, although he always insisted to me that he had many American friends. I met (at the time) Prince Sihanouk, whom I would call Monseigneur, in French, numerous times in so many places, (France, Belgium, New York, Thailand, Jakarta, China) and I always went away with the feeling that I had learned something new.
I know that to many people, he had the image of a bon vivant. This was not totally true. Sure he enjoyed good food, and when he offered a banquet for Cambodian or
foreign personalities, he made sure the food was good and complemented by the proper wine. But he himself hardly drank at all.
He just went through the motions. During the late years of his life (for the last 15 years I believe), he was also under the constant surveillance of Chinese doctors, so
again he would often pretend to eat. I guess he was not the only head of state to act in
a similar fashion.
He learned a lot from his years in exile. He told me in private that he made mistakes; that he had at times been unfair to journalists and critics. That he should not have
ordered the execution of some enemies.
There was another big difference between the Sihanouk of the ’50s and ’60s and the post-Paris Peace Agreement Sihanouk of the ‘90s. He used to be the real “boss” of Cambodian politics. He was now a constitutional monarch, “kicked upstairs” to limit his political power. This limitation was not always very clear to many Cambodians, especially in the countryside. Some people used to tell me “he should take over, like before, and everything would be okay”. When I replied that the constitution would not
authorize such a take over, they looked at me as if I had been talking about the moon.
I first met Prince Sihanouk in 1983 in Mougins, in the south of France. He lived in a small villa that belonged to Cambodia. It was after the victory of Francois Mitterrand in 1981 that he was allowed to come and live in France. The villa Kantha Bopha was small, on a main road, across from a noisy garage. I went to see him several times along with my late wife, Shirley.
Then one day, he sent me a letter telling me that he had managed to sell a villa belonging to his father, and had a little money and would like to invite us for a good lunch. Sihanouk and Princess Monique took us to the local tennis club, where there was a nice restaurant of traditional French cuisine. No stars in the Michelin guide, but very good. The waiter who served us was very young, and it was his first day at the club. He was so impressed by his royal client that he dropped a plate.
Sihanouk immediately got up, prevented the boss of the restaurant from punishing the waiter and said, “Don’t worry. I was also very young when I first became King of Cambodia. And I made many mistakes. But I learned from them, and my friend Jacques here is kind enough to say I was a good king. I would say I was probably the least bad one.”
Everywhere I met Sihanouk, he always made a point to thank everybody, from the motorcyclists of the escort to the waiters and servants.
Yes, we share something in common: music. Sihanouk admired jazz, and told me once that Duke Ellington was a great American. He himself played saxophone and piano. He composed many songs, some of which were very popular. The songswere arranged by professional musicians and sometimes performed by a symphony orchestra.
One of my own compositions, called A Distant Harmony was played several times by Radio UNTAC, and Sihanouk told me he heard it.
In the ’50s, a famous American conductor of light symphonic music, Andre Kostelanetz, arranged several tunes of Sihanouk’s into a suite called the Cambodian Suite. It was released on a record. One day, Sihanouk told me he had lost any copies he had, and was wondering if I knew how to get a recording of that suite.
It happened that I knew Andre Kostelanetz’s nephew and also Andre’s elderly brother, both living in New York. I asked Boris Kostelanetz if he had a copy of this record. He replied
that he lost his, but that maybe the Library of Congress in Washington, DC would have a copy. They did and they sent a tape, which I was glad to give to the King.
Jacques Bekaert is a Belgian-born composer, Southeast Asia correspondent and friend of Norodom Sihanouk.
His late Majesty was a monarch who worked extremely hard for his people and country. Every document that was submitted to him was read, and often he commented on the same document or gave instructions to ministers or his personal staff. An extremely gentle and polite man, he always expressed his thanks to everybody that worked for him in his Secretariat.
When we arrived for a visit in a foreign country, every person that had been involved during his visits received a small memento from him, including drivers and escort police, who also were personally greeted by His late Majesty.
The late monarch has been characterized as a "bon vivant," often by academics and journalists that did not know him or never met him. This characterisation comes from the fact that he used to offer a glass of champagne to his visitors, but it should not be taken as him drinking bottles of champagne during the day. In fact, as I observed him on many occasions, he played with his champagne glass and consumed very little of the said drink. He was simply trying to make a guest feel welcome in his presence.
He liked good food: Cambodian, French, Chinese and others. When he gave a dinner party or a reception, that dinner had to be well organised, because the image of his beloved Cambodia had to be well-presented to outsiders. Everything he did, whether it was a film (which foreigners never understood) or a dinner party, was part of his promotion of his country. The good name of Cambodia was of paramount importance to him, just as important as the territorial integrity and the unity of Cambodia were.
In politics, he did his best to keep the territorial integrity of Cambodia protected, and to achieve that, he manoeuvred to get the recognition of Cambodia's borders from all sides of the Cold War with much success, which was interrupted by the US-supported coup d’état of 18 March 1970. However, the economic situation of Cambodia was not as successful as His late Majesty had hoped, because of domestic issues and also the continuous war in Vietnam.
When the Khmer Rouge rallied his National United Front of Kampuchea (FUNK) in March 1970 after the coup, Sihanouk believed that he was dealing with moderate elements such as Khieu Samphan, Hu Nim and HouYoun.
Only later, Ieng Sary appeared in the picture and Pol Pot did not show up until after Democratic Kampuchea had been declared following the Khmer Rouge military victory. His late
Majesty did not know that the Khmer Rouge were murderous thugs, as they made Khieu Samphan the nominal "visible" leader of Democratic Kampuchea, while Pol Pot remained the ruthless "invisible" leader of Democratic Kampuchea.
Also, it needs to be pointed out that most Western countries, and all of ASEAN, turned against His late Majesty after the 1970 coup, so the only support he received was from communist or non-aligned countries.
Just to show you how His late Majesty never paid any attention to money or making a fortune out of his position, let me tell you an anecdote. In 1984 or 1985, I can’t recall the correct year, I accompanied him to New York for the UN General Assembly.
That day, his protocol chief was away with the Queen Mother, and he decided that we should walk to the UN headquarters not far from his hotel. On the way there, he saw some Christmas cards and he stopped to buy some only to realise, after making his selection, that he did not have any money with him. So I was asked to pay for them, and he reimbursed me later! That was the man Sihanouk was: not interested in money, only in Cambodia.
Julio Jeldres is the former personal secretary and official biographer of the late King Father.
The height of the Cold War in the 1950s seemed like poor timing for tiny Cambodia to be defying the might of America US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was exasperated by the audacity of Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s antics in refusing to join the SEATO alliance set up to counter the “red menace” from toppling the dominoes of SE Asia.
“You must choose,” Dulles told Cambodia’s head of state. “You cannot be neutral!”
But Sihanouk was determined to align with the non-aligned nations.
To duck Uncle Sam’s embrace, he made it his business to befriend on the most personal level all the key leaders of the so-called ‘third world’, most significantly, Mao Tse Tung and Zhou Enlai of China, Jawaharlal Nehru of India, Indonesia’s President Sukarno, Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia and Kim Il-sung of North Korea.
This was bold defiance for an uppity prince with no real army he could rely on to protect himself, let alone one to defend Cambodia’s borders. On the international stage, Sihanouk was as ingenious and far-sighted as he was a personal charmer without equal.
Who else, for example, would have persuaded Mao and Zhou Enlai - the ultra-revolutionaries of Communist China - to be bestowed with royal decorations from Cambodia’s purple-blooded “God-King”? China would prove to be Sihanouk’s lifelong patron and protector.
In My War with the CIA, the Prince claimed to have been targeted in at least two assassination attempts. But it was the CIA’s involvement in the coup and assassination of America’s anti-Communist ally, President Ngo Dinh Diem, next door in South Vietnam that convinced Sihanouk to cut off US aid as well as diplomatic relations with Washington.
“If that’s what they do to an ally,” said Sihanouk, “what will they do to an neutral?”
In the Western media and diplomatic circles, Sihanouk was commonly depicted as a playboy and clown - more often mocked for his high-pitched voice and giggle than respected for his canny manoeuvring for Cambodia’s long-term survival in the devastating wars of Indochina.
Others added to the perception of Sihanouk as a flibbertigibbet by claiming he turned his back on his growing domestic problems in the 1960s and escaped into the fantasy world of indulging his passion for filmmaking.
But this was a lifelong passion that the late King Father still pursued even during the final years after his “retirement” from political life.
In 2006, when he was 84, the King Father wrote, produced and directed one of his most pointed political satires. Titled Commander of the Royal Order of KohDaung, it focused on the scheming and corruption seething in a fictional “Coconut Island” kingdom
“Not Cambodia. Never Cambodia!” the King Father chuckled over and over just in case anyone might miss the irony.
The film was shot entirely within the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. To play the roles, the King Father had invited an amazing lineup of distinguished VIPs and government officials mainly connected to the Royalist Funcinpec party. No matter what humiliation might have been in store, presumably none would have dared to decline the honour of appearing in one of the revered King Father’s films.
In the lead as a magician was Prince Sisowath Sirirath, son of Sirik Matak, who, with General Lon Nol, had led the “coup” that ousted Sihanouk from power in 1970. That was the crucial turning point that unleashed the 5 years of war and brought Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge to power.
Whatever the King Father might have had in mind, Prince Sirirath - like everyone else - appeared delighted to play along.
In the most telling sequence of all, real-life government officials played the parts of “ministers” in the Coconut Island kingdom. On the table in front of each “minister” was a silver platter stacked with wads of US dollar notes – fakes, as it turned out. These were the necessary bribes being offered to the wife of the Coconut Island ruler as payment for buying a “ministry”.
For a real life Secretary of State like Chea Chan Boribo, for example, or Chap Nhalyvoud, half-brother to Prince Ranariddh and governor of Kampong Speu province, there was no hint of embarrassment in their eagerness to serve and share in His Majesty’s mischievous good humour.
It was here that the King Father laughed aloud and shrieked his disclaimer, ‘Not Cambodia. Never Cambodia!’
Like most of his films, this was open to a puzzling array of possible interpretations.
They have been the subject of several academic studies already, but for political and psychoanalysts, there could be years of work ahead before the enigmas of the King Father’s passions for filmmaking mixed with his original genius for statecraft are ever likely to be unraveled.
Jim Gerrand is an Australian filmmaker who began working in Cambodia as a news cameraman in the late ’60s and has produced films focusing on Sihanouk’s Cambodia for much of the past 40 years.
I met with Sihanouk in New York just after he was taken out of Cambodia and brought to the UN. China had demanded that the Khmer Rouge whisk him out before Vietnam sacked Cambodia. So Sihanouk had been under house arrest, and all of the sudden, he’s back on center stage. This is when he was in some ways at his most vulnerable as a leader, and a big turning point.
At that point in time, he invited me to a private dinner with him and his wife at his hotel in New York.
His basic line was always: I am Cambodia; I do what’s best for Cambodia. In actual fact, sometimes this was true, sometimes it wasn’t. One constant, one North Star for Sihanouk was: I do whatever will keep me in power. He always knew which way the wind was blowing.
After the Vietnam invasion, the whole world was at a loss about what was happening in Cambodia.
This is when Sihanouk was at his most contradictory. At the dinner, he would condemn the Khmer Rouge, then say they were the only legitimate government in Cambodia. He just didn’t make any sense.
I’m looking at my notes from that time, and when you would point that out to him, how contradictory he was being, he says: “My life is one of irony; it has not been pleasant.”
Mind you, this is January 15, 1979. This is right after.
Monique, meanwhile, is saying something very different than her husband. She said at one point: “I never want to go back to Cambodia.”
Neither knew how many of their family members had been killed at that point.
Monique was still incredibly beautiful. She had this face that showed so much sorrow and despair. Sihanouk did not appear that way, he was still on centre stage, even at this intimate dinner.
He had invited the journalists who had been in the country during the Khmer Rouge period, so it was a very intimate conversation, the most intimate conversation I have ever had with him. And he was very conflicted.
He blamed Kissinger and Nixon for what befell Cambodia, not the Khmer Rouge – though he did say they were atrocious. He said the Pol Pot government were the worst violators of human rights in the world, but that they were the only legitimate government.
You had a sense that he wasn’t sure where he would go, what direction he would move in. He had no clear policy.
On the one hand, he was very much trying to protect his legacy. He said he would listen to these Khmer Rouge radio broadcasts every night: “I heard them say over the radio that for 2,000 years, the people of Cambodia starved because of Sihanouk and his ancestors… I apologize to the people, but the people did not starve under Sihanouk, and the country was beautiful – very beautiful.”
Monique, meanwhile, would talk about being taken out of the palace to be paraded around the country when the situation for the Khmer Rouge was at its lowest. She talked about how people, women in particular, would run after [Sihanouk] and cry.
Mind you, this was only January 1979. We had no idea yet what the human cost had been during the Khmer Rouge period. This was a really critical dinner.
Later that month, Sihanouk had a nervous breakdown. And after that, he gave up on this idea of a neutral position. He became allies with China and the Khmer Rouge. He realized geopolitics wouldn’t allow a neutral Cambodia.
The next interview I had with him was one year later in Washington DC. I asked him this question, this very journalistic question: What is your biggest nightmare? Because here it is, February 1980, and he’s trying to lead a coalition with China and the Khmer Rouge to topple Vietnam.
Do you know what he says? “Retirement.”
He tells me he has this recurring nightmare where he’s on the Cote d'Azur, walking down the beach, and he recognizes no one - only one person. And that is Bao Dai, Vietnam’s exiled emperor.
His nightmare is not that Vietnam will topple Cambodia or that the coalition will fail or anything related to that. It’s that he will be retired.
At this point, Sihanouk had so convinced himself that he was Cambodia and it was Sihanouk that the one big nightmare was that he is exiled and Cambodia
loses its chances for success.
And so then, he’s on the march. He uses his influence to keep the Khmer Rouge on the UN seat, he uses his coalition despite saying he wanted neutrality.
That’s the path he took. As a reporter, that’s one of the moments when I say, “What if he said ‘no, I don’t like your strategy, I’m not going to support it, I’m standing for a neutral solution’ ”? It would have completely changed the calculus,
I think. Especially if you believe what the diplomats were saying at this point, which was that Cambodia needs Sihanouk.
That nightmare explained to me why he personally couldn’t make that choice.
And that personally summarized to me what it meant to be Sihanouk. And that’s why Cambodia is what it is today.
I have to say it is completely true about his charisma. I’ve never seen anything like that. In that first interview, he had a row of Cambodian leaders sitting behind him so they could learn from how he interacted with me. This man was brilliant. He could manipulate your emotions and the media. But after my book came out, he wouldn’t speak to me. He was furious. If he didn’t like what came out from a journalist, he’d do a major critique and then just wouldn’t talk to you again.
To have been around him and to have seen the three rows of Cambodian leaders – all from Lon Nol side of war. They had spent time in US, spent years furious at Sihanouk for supporting the Khmer Rouge.
There were 15 men and one woman who were there. And he says to them: “We, the Cambodian refugees, will not join the Khmer Rouge.” And they start clapping.
He says, “I cannot reject the Lon Nol supporters. They are my children. But the Khmer Rouge killed my children.”
And at the same time he’s joining the Khmer Rouge coalition… the confusion he showed all over the place
He publicly condemned the Khmer Rouge and in return was feted his whole life.
There are two sides of Sihanouk. The first, at the dinner, when he was pushing for a neutral state. That’s the Sihanouk I knew – so famous for being an important leader in the nonaligned movement.
I do think there was no question – he wanted Cambodia to become an Austria.
This is neutral territory, go and fight your geopolitical battles somewhere else.
You could see he did want this Austria. But the leaders who supported him refused it; they would not allow it.
He tried to find some way around what was being cooked up, but the Americans did not want to give him refuge – and it became clear the only way to remain a power broker was to side with the Chinese.
He’s an example of a guy who stayed around too long. I think he made some serious mistakes beginning in 1970 and 1975, horrible mistakes. But he still didn’t learn from them. And third strike was still staying with the Khmer Rouge after 1979.
You could have made really strong arguments pro and con about Sihanouk until 1979. He was not a racist; he did have so many progressive ideas about the country and its culture, its art and education… so many things. But by 1979, he really ruined his own legacy. And that’s also, of course, what you see today: a
kleptocracy, a single party ruler, Prime Minister Hun Sen and all his titles. … it’s not a good legacy. Would have been a completely different legacy if he said no, if he had not stayed with the Khmer Rouge, that would have changed his legacy.
Because he was critical to ensure the coalition with the Khmer Rouge looked broad-based. If Sihanouk’s behind it, they said, it’s OK.
What was heartbreaking for me was visiting during the week after his death. I loved seeing Cambodians coming to the palace… They were remembering the Sihanouk of the 1960s. Remembering when Cambodia was a community. When people weren’t money grubbing, weren’t stabbing each other in the back. And if he had stopped in 1970, that would be the legacy. That was the memory of Sihanouk that had a lot more good than bad.
Elizabeth Becker is a journalist who has covered Cambodia extensively. She is the author of When the War Was Over (1986) and the forthcoming Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism, which will be released by Simon Schuster in April.
The King Father played the role of the cement, not just for the monarchy, but for
all Cambodians, from different political tendencies or organisations or religions.
Somehow he was also, at the same time, able to play the role of father. He had a lot of love and compassion and understanding for all of his children, for everybody.
I am 70 years old, which means I grew up in his spiritual guidance. For the procession of the body to the Royal Palace in October, I went to sit on the street to greet him personally. When I was young, in primary school and middle school, we enjoyed standing on the street and waving at him when he returned from his state affairs from abroad. He always loved to stand on the street and wave back at us. Sihanouk was down to earth –he was not in any way untouchable. He was a modern king.
I will go and sit in meditation to convey all the merits for the King Father for him to be whatever he wants to be - may his wish come true. That’s the last gesture that I can do for him, and I feel that I am very fortunate to be born under one of the great Cambodian kings.
I am surprised and also delighted to see this kind of elaborate procession. For me, it is cultural – it is a process for Cambodians to learn more about their culture, to learn more about their tradition. It is once in a lifetime, and it raises the profile of Cambodia as an ancient rich culture. This is the soul and spirit of the Khmer nation.
And also it will be a national documentation for generations to come. What the funeral is bringing back is far more than the actual cost.
Chea Vannath is an independent political analyst and the former head and founder of the Center of Social Development, a governance and rights NGO.
The death of Norodom Sihanouk, King Father of Cambodia, does not represent the end of an era, since “Sihanouk’s Era” effectively ended in March 1970 when - as chief of state of Cambodia - he was deposed in a coup led by General Lon Nol and Sihanouk’s cousin Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak. While it is true Sihanouk continued to occupy positions of varying importance after 1970—head of the United Front fighting against the regime in Phnom Penh; very briefly president of Democratic Kampuchea after the Khmer Rouge victory in 1975; King again and then King Father—in none of these positions did he exercise the kind of power that characterised his multiple roles between becoming king in 1941 and his overthrow in 1970.
A remarkable and controversial figure by any standard, Sihanouk undoubtedly deserves credit for the fact that Cambodia achieved independence from France with a minimum of conflict in 1953 and for the efforts he made to transform a sleepy kingdom from a French protectorate into a modern Southeast Asian state. Whether the means he used to govern Cambodia deserve the credit some have given him is an issue for debate, but on one thing both his critics and admirers can agree: He always acted in the belief that he had the good of his country and his people at heart. The problem was that he did not believe anyone else could match the wisdom he alone possessed.
Sihanouk’s reign and rule was in great contrast to his 20 th-century forebears, King Sisowath and King Monivong, both of whom (if in different ways) simply acquiesced to the French. In 50 or a hundred years - when historians look back on Sihanouk’s life - they will surely give credit to his activism, if not necessarily to the choices he made.
His son and successor, King Norodom Sihamoni, occupies a very different position from that of his father, most particularly when Sihanouk acted with almost unlimited power in the 1950s and in the early half of the 1960s. A serious and highly cultured man, King Sihamoni is a diligent constitutional monarch who knows the limits of his position and acts carefully with them.
Milton Osborne, a visiting fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy, Sydney, isthe author of Sihanouk: Prince of Light, Prince of Darkness (1994) and Phnom Penh: A;Cultural and Literary History (2008).
The King Father is a symbol of unity, and, despite all the problems and so on, he has tried to give peace to the people - which is not simple, because there was fighting between factions and so on. He was a divine figure – treated as such in what he wanted to do. It’s for the government to solve [current political problems], because he did not govern. He reigned but did not govern. But, of course, he has a lot of influence and popularity with the people and in the countryside. Even young people today look up to him, since they have known what he has done in his time, and they are surprised he has achieved so much.
With the funeral, I am thankful that the government recognized his popularity and his worthiness, his achievements and all he has done for the country and his reputation in the national arena. So I think they really are giving him justice in some ways. The King himself, when he died, he said he wished not too impose too much spending on the government for his funeral. But this is the Cambodian tradition, because even during the French time, the French made this kind of ceremony for King Sisowath and King Monivong. It’s our tradition.
His Excellency Son Soubert is an advisor to King Norodom Sihamoni and a member of the Constitutional Council. He helped found the Human Rights Party and has been involved in various charity works.
I think people will remember Sihanouk for a long time, because a person like him is rare in the history of any country. I am not saying that he is a hero, but for sure, he
had huge, enormous, charisma, and he is a personality linked to Cambodia just before
and after independence.
It’s like in the past, going back to Angkorian times, like King Suryavarman II, the builder of Angkor Wat, or King Jayavarman VII, the builder of the Bayon temple - I think his name will be like that. You can like him and you can dislike him, but what you can’t deny is his incredible charisma and his imprint he made on Cambodia, since his youth until now. And I would say that the destiny of Cambodia and his destiny have been linked one to another. And you know, he brought the totally unknown Cambodia, a tiny kingdom, into the international arena, thanks to his personality and individuality.
I wonder if I myself will be able to go to Phnom Penh to see the procession, because I fear the size of the crowds. If I judge by what I saw from when the body of the King Father was brought from Beijing, I saw that there was a huge spontaneous moment - very big crowds - and at that time, I think nobody foresaw, nobody could imagine in advance that many.
Dr. Ang Choulean is a scholar of anthropology, ethnology and archaeology who focuses on Cambodian religion and culture. He formerly was the director of the Department of Culture and Monuments at the Authority for the Protection and Management of Angkor and the Region of SiemReap.
I was preparing to go on vacation leave in Singapore on 15 October 2012 when my phone rang at 6:05am. A Cambodian friend conveyed the sad news that King Father Norodom Sihanouk suffered a heart attack and had passed away in a Beijing hospital a few hours earlier. As a diplomat, I knew an era has passed with the King Father’s passing and I decided to stay put in Cambodia.
The King Father embodied the true spirit of Cambodia. The older generation of Cambodians and Singaporeans remember Sihanouk’s premiership in the1960s as the “golden age” of Cambodia, when Phnom Penh was known as the Pearl of Southeast Asia. In fact, two years after Singapore’s independence in 1965, at the invitation of His Majesty, Singapore’s Founder and then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew visited Cambodia with his family to study its developmental experience. But Cambodia’s “golden age” was soon disrupted by the Cold War. The destiny King Father Sihanouk sought was of a modern, industrialised and independent Cambodia, but larger geopolitical currents, andlater domestic divisions, proved overwhelming.
When Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, accompanied by his wife Madam Ho Ching, visited Phnom Penh to pay his last respects to His Majesty on 21 Oct 2012, he said Singapore will never forget the crucial role His Majesty had played in fostering the enduring friendship between Singapore and Cambodia. Due to His Majesty’s personal friendship with former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, Cambodia became one of the first countries to recognise Singapore’s independence. The King Father will be missed by all Cambodians and by many in Singapore. Farewell to King Father Norodom Sihanouk.
His Excellency Premjith Sadasivan is Singapore’s ambassador to Cambodia.
My big problem and his problem were how to share our private time with family, while being busy with political life. For he had two kinds of children. He was also father of the nation, father of all Cambodians. The fact is, that while my father very much loved his own children, he loved Cambodia much more.
I’ve been listening to my father’s songs lately. He was a wonderful composer; I love his songs very much. My father used to say to me, “My son Ranariddh sang my songs the best,” because you had to sing it with your own heart. I used to sing a lot. He didn't like to sing his own songs, so I used to do it.
I still cherish what he said on October 30, 2011, in the front of the Royal Palace when the government organized such a big meeting to celebrate his birthday. He advised us that if we want a more prosperous Cambodia, more just, powerful, a continuance of the past, then there is no way out but real cooperation between royalists, represented by the King, and the CPP, represented by Hun Sen. I think this should be his last testament of will, his political testament. They should think twice, two times, three times, again and again about what he said, without which in my humble opinion there won't be any prosperity or strength.
He was father of the nation, father of everything. And no one can replace him any more.
I think he’s the last great king, the last great monarch, and the last father of the nation. These should be the last words.
Prince Norodom Ranariddh is the son of the late King Father and a former prime;minister of Cambodia.