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A final sampeah with King Father Norodom Sihanouk

Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihanouk greets top Cambodian officials and friends on his arrival to Phnom Penh from Beijing, 29 January 2002. Stephen Shaver/AFP
Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihanouk greets top Cambodian officials and friends on his arrival to Phnom Penh from Beijing, 29 January 2002. Stephen Shaver/AFP

A final sampeah with King Father Norodom Sihanouk

Beijing, September 25, 2012. It was a beautiful morning, blue skies and moderate temperature. It was my last day in Beijing before travelling to Harbin, in northeastern China, and then direct to Australia via Guangzhou.

I had been in Beijing for a month as a guest of Their Majesties the King Father and the Queen Mother of Cambodia, in the centrally located residence Prime Minister Zhou Enlai had allocated for them in the 1970s and which successive Chinese governments have refurbished on a number of occasions.

It is a historical residence. It used to be the French legation during the times of the Chinese Empire and then it became for a while the Ministry of External Affairs of the People’s Republic of China.

In the 1980s, it served as a meeting place between the King Father and leaders of other Cambodian factions, as well as foreign diplomats during the search for a peaceful settlement of the Cambodian conflict. I had lived for long periods of time in that residence during my years as senior private secretary (chef de secrétariat) to His Late Majesty between 1981 and 1991.

Located behind Beijing’s Municipality, in a street, known as Dong Jiao Min Xiang or East Foreign Residents Alley, which also features the former Portuguese, Italian and American legations, the residence is easily distinguishable because of its red gate and the two temple lions guarding it.

The morning was so beautiful that I decided to go for stroll around the huge garden before joining my Cambodian colleagues for breakfast.

I had been warned the previous night that I was to have lunch with Their Majesties and Prince Sisowath Thomico, who was also leaving Beijing to return to Phnom Penh.

During my stay, I had had the opportunity to see His late Majesty the King Father Norodom Sihanouk several times. I was in Beijing working on a book celebrating the 90th birthday of the King Father, which his youngest daughter, HRH the Princess Royal Norodom Arunrasmy, wanted to publish for his birthday.

The lunch was not in the usual main dining room on the second floor but rather in a room adjacent to Their Majesties’ living and working quarters. The King Father was very weak and doctors had suggested that he avoid moving around.

The Chinese cook had prepared a delightful mixture of Chinese and French dishes for His Late Majesty that he hardly touched and directed instead towards Prince Thomico and me. He did not speak but smiled a lot. I still remember his eyes looking at me and watching whether I was eating enough or not.

It was very difficult to enjoy the food because I had become used to three-hour luncheons with His Late Majesty that for me were basically lessons in diplomacy and international politics.

I, a Chilean of humble origins in Santiago de Chile, which fate had placed in the midst of the Royal Court of the descendants of Jayavarman VII of Angkor, at a time when their country was occupied by their historical enemy.

And now Preah Karuna did not say much but smiled and observed.

It was the most difficult lunch I had ever had to attend and now it was time to say goodbye. His Late Majesty embraced me like he always did, I bowed my head and gave him a Khmer sampeah, holding my hands together as in Buddhist prayer. I did not know that it was to be my last sampeah addressed to the King Father of Cambodia.

I returned to Australia and continued working on the book, which we were planning to present to His Late Majesty for his 90 birthday in late October, hopefully in Phnom Penh if His late Majesty could travel. Otherwise I would return to Beijing.

At 2:40am Australian time, on October 15, my hand-phone rang, on the line a very distressed Prince Arun informed me that the King Father had passed away. I felt like my own Father had died for a second time and sat alone in my room not knowing what to do for an hour or so. After the initial shock, I thought I should inform His Late Majesty friends around the world and I sent messages to those I could contact.

Another message, this time from Her Majesty the Queen Mother, asked me to please come to Phnom Penh to help in the Royal Secretariat. I could not leave Australia immediately because I was coordinating a Cambodia roundtable at Monash University with former foreign minister Gareth Evans as guest speaker, but I promised I would come to Cambodia the day after.

That evening Australian television asked me to appear in their international news show, which I did, to remember His Late Majesty, and there were literally hundreds of messages from newspapers and journalists around the world asking all kinds of questions. I needed a secretariat of my own to be able to respond to all these questions, but not having one, I did my best.

The judgment of the international press was brutal. Journalists (or so they call themselves) wrote stories based on malicious gossip or on books written mostly by American or Australian “scholars” who never liked Sihanouk’s fierce patriotism, neutralism (at a time when small countries were forced by the big powers to choose a side in the Cold War) and the unique relationship His Late Majesty had built with the rural population of Cambodia.

The outpouring of grief in Phnom Penh when His Late Majesty’s body arrived from Beijing was extraordinary and spontaneous. Indeed, Prime Minister Hun Sen had apologised to the Queen Mother in Beijing for not having had time, because of the King Father’s sudden demise, to arrange for popular demonstrations of grief upon the arrival of the body.

But now the old and particularly the young generations, the same one that the Cambodian “scholars” had written that “did not know and did not care about Sihanouk” were there to show their great affection for the man who had built, against all odds, modern Cambodia. If there was a time when the Cambodia “scholars” were proved wrong, this was the time.

In early November, I arrived in Phnom Penh and began helping in the Royal Secretariat, while attending prayers at the Throne Hall every day. The Buddhist monks singing was sad and so was the music played for the occasion.

Prince Norodom Sihanouk (centre), his wife Monique (left) and Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping wave in a motorcade as Sihanouk leaves Beijing for Phnom Penh in September 1975. AFP
Prince Norodom Sihanouk (centre), his wife Monique (left) and Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping wave in a motorcade as Sihanouk leaves Beijing for Phnom Penh in September 1975. AFP

Many foreign delegations came to pay respect. I was particularly touched by the respect shown by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra of Thailand. She behaved like she was paying respect to her own king and that really touched many Cambodians.

US President Barack Obama, attending and ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh, stayed away, “for security reasons”, I am told. If there was a time for the United States to show real interest in Cambodia, this was that time, to share the Cambodian people’s grief. President Obama was badly advised by his counsellors.

For 12 years I had served in different roles in the Private Secretariat of His Late Majesty, and since 1993 I had been his official biographer, a role that has never been understood by the Cambodia “scholars”, who have interpreted the title “as a suggestion that there is only one officially sanctioned way to write” about King Father Norodom Sihanouk.

In fact, and this may come as a surprise to many, His Late Majesty appointed me as official biographer after I had resigned from his Private Secretariat, not so much in order to write an official biography but rather to keep me near him to help with the drafting of speeches, letters and other official communications, while in my spare time documenting the history of the Cambodian monarchy, as I have done in six books. I have recently donated to Monash University’s library over 30 folders and boxes of correspondence of this period.

Not once, did His Late Majesty direct me how to write my books or articles, and I have enjoyed complete freedom to say what I feel needs to be said or what I have discovered through my research. At times, some of my articles were considered to be critical of His Late Majesty, but he never said anything to me.

During my time at the service of His Late Majesty, I observed a human being who was completely devoted to his country and people from the time he got out of bed until the late hours of the night, often going into the morning. I have never seen such dedication. In Beijing, he never went out, he always stayed working and only went outside his residence for the occasional dinner hosted by the Chinese president or prime minister at the Diaoyutai (State Guest House).

Even during foreign trips, the host government suggested a program of visits to cultural relics or tourist attractions and His Late Majesty often politely declined in favour of staying at his hotel or State Guest House working, planning how to get all the Cambodian factions together to reconcile and work for the restoration of Cambodia’s territorial integrity and independence.

For many months after His Late Majesty’s passing, I felt I wanted to cry, to express my grief, but I just could not. I also felt anger towards the many articles published after his passing, describing a person that was not the Sihanouk I knew. A man of a contagious good humour, hard working, a visionary who foresaw international events often years before they happened.

In the mid-1950s he realised that China was going to become a power to be reckoned with. He established diplomatic relations with China but was always ready to break diplomatic relations if China tried to communise Cambodia.

In 1967, he had ordered the closure of the Cambodian Embassy in Beijing because Chinese diplomats were exporting the Cultural Revolution to the Chinese schools and newspapers in Cambodia. Only a firm assurance by Prime Minister Zhou Enlai changed His Late Majesty’s mind.

It was interesting to observe that beginning in 1970. Many Western countries, which rejected China and its system of government, rushed to open diplomatic relations with Beijing in exchange for lucrative commercial and trade deals with a growing economic power and a huge market for Western consumerism. Twenty years before, many of those countries had condemned Sihanouk for being friendly to China!

In the 1980s, the Chinese tried to get him to form an alliance with the remnants of the Pol Pot regime – he refused. Later, the US, ASEAN and other countries joined China in putting pressure for the formation of the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea (CGDK). He had to agree, otherwise the thousands of refugees living at the Thai border, who proclaimed themselves Sihanoukists, would have been cut off from international assistance.

His Late Majesty was a man who through his many actions, even some controversial ones, ensured that Cambodia did not end up like the Kingdom of Champa and survived to be a modern independent nation.

It took me months and several sessions with a therapist back in Australia to get rid of those feelings and to finally be able to grieve. His Late Majesty was a remarkable man who really touched my life, and in a sense changed it.

Earlier this month, we commemorated the fourth anniversary of His Late Majesty’s passing. I remember him for his many kindnesses towards so many people. How he forgave those who had deposed him in 1970 and even gave titles to their siblings.

I pray to the Almighty that His Late Majesty the King Father Preah Borom Rattanak Kaudh may rest in Peace. I miss him.

Julio A Jeldres is an adjunct research fellow at the School of History at the Monash Asia Institute of the Caulfiend campus of Monash University in Victoria state, Australia. He served as the private secretary to King Father Norodom Sihanouk from 1981 to 1991.

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