Prince Norodom Sihanouk

A Cambodian nationalist and political leader, Prince Norodom Sihanouk (born 1922) secured Cambodia's independence from French colonial rule and sought to protect his country from the repercussions of Great Power rivalries.

The first of the four children of Prince Norodom Suramarit and Princess Monivong Kossamak, Prince Norodom Sihanouk was born in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh on Oct. 31, 1922. He was a direct descendant of the great 19th-century King Norodom, who was succeeded upon his death in 1904 by a half brother rather than a son. The colonial French encouraged Sihanouk's selection as king in 1941 because they feared the outspokenly nationalist heir apparent of the line of King Norodom's half brother. Sihanouk, who already enjoyed a reputation as a playboy, was picked because the French perceived him as pliable.

Sihanouk was raised in a quite modest environment by his musically talented parents, in whose footsteps he partly followed as an accomplished saxophonist. Educated in French at an ordinary day school in Phnom Penh, Sihanouk was subsequently sent to a secondary school in Saigon in Vietnam, which, like Cambodia, was then part of French Indochina. He did not complete his secondary schooling, however—let alone continue on to a university—because of his recall to Phnom Penh in 1941, at the age of 18, to be enthroned as king.

Sihanouk's coronation took place 10 months after the fall of France, whose Indochinese empire fell under the practical direction of the expanding Japanese—who controlled neighboring Vietnam and Laos. During the first years of his reign as king, Sihanouk was a prisoner in his own palace. Although he subsequently proclaimed Cambodian independence from France in March 1945, encouraged by the retreating Japanese, he came fairly quickly to terms with the returning French after the war. He also opposed demands by the national legislatures elected in 1947 and 1951 for a redeclaration of independence from France.

Emergent Nationalist

Somewhat surprisingly, in light of his dissolutionof a legislature that demanded immediate independence, Sihanouk proceeded to France to advance this very demand. Rebuffed by the French, he went into exile in Thailand in 1953, successfully embarrassing France into acquiescence to his country's independence. This independence was in effect completed in 1954 with the Geneva Agreements, which terminated the 8-year Franco-Indochinese War. This war was fought largely in adjacent Vietnam, but there were a few Vietnamese Communist partisans in Cambodia and a handful of Cambodian sympathizers. Sihanouk held up final approval of the Geneva Agreements until his demand for the complete withdrawal of the Vietnamese Communists from his country was met.

Sihanouk accepted American military and economic assistance after the end of the First Vietnamese War (1945-1954) and even initially sought to join the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO). He terminated United States aid in 1963, however—and broke off diplomatic relations in 1965 (resumed in 1969)—because of the spillover into Cambodia of American war activity in adjacent South Vietnam and American diplomatic support of (and military aid to) another neighbor and historical foe, Thailand.

Monarchy without a King

Although he was still king when independence came, Sihanouk stepped down as monarch in 1955 in order to play a more active day-to-day role in Cambodian politics. He was succeeded on the throne by his father. The mercurial Sihanouk served a half dozen times as premier in the years 1955-1960, frequently resigning from the post for one reason or another, and became "chief of state" in 1960— shortly after the death of his father, the king. Although Cambodia continued to call itself a monarchy and was led by a former king—Sihanouk—it was the only monarchy in the world without a ruling sovereign.

Sihanouk formed the Popular Socialist Community party after his abdication as a means of preserving his political preeminence. This party won all the seats in the National Assembly vote of 1955 and subsequent elections throughout the 1960s, making Cambodia a one-party state in terms of representation in its government, and Sihanouk the political, if not reigning, king. The outbreak of North Vietnamese-encouraged Communist rebellion on Cambodian soil in 1967, however, indicated that there was at least this kind of opposition to Sihanouk's continued control of Cambodian political life.

For the first decade and a half of Cambodia's resumed independence, Sihanouk symbolized his nation to both his countrymen and the world beyond Cambodia. A devout Buddhist, he also sought to modernize his country's traditional agricultural economy, accepting aid from all quarters (until his termination of United States assistance in 1963). Assuming the posture of an outspoken neutralist in the second half of the 1950s, he tried both to restrict the role of the Great Powers in his country and to block the extension of the Vietnam War to Cambodia—with a surprising degree of success. He visited Peking, and he even recognized the Communist "Provisional Revolutionary Government" (Vietcong) in South Vietnam in 1969.

On March 18, 1970, while Sihanouk was returning from a health cure in France via Moscow, he and his government were overthrown by Lt. Gen. Lon Nol and Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak. This pro-Western coup resulted in Sihanouk's forming a government-in-exile in Peking and in the declaration of Cambodia as a republic. At that time he also announced his support of the Cambodian Communist Khmer Rouge under General Pol Pot in their efforts to overthrow Lon Nol.

In 1975 Lon Nol's government was overthrown by the Khmer Rouge and Sihanouk was returned to his position as head of state. In 1976, however, he was placed under house arrest by Pol Pot who assumed control of the government as the country's prime minister. In 1979, the Khmer Rouge government fell when the North Vietnamese invaded and occupied the country. Pol Pot and his allies fled to southwestern Cambodia and engaged in guerilla warfare against the new Vietnamese-backed government, while Sihanouk fled once again into exile in China, where he remained for 12 years. There he formed a coalition government-in-exile composed of royalists, rightists, and the Khmer Rouge. His government-in-exile in China succeeded in gaining a seat at the United Nations as the legitimate government of Cambodia.

In 1989, the Vietnamese withdrew and left behind a pro-Vietnamese government under Prime Minister Hun Sen. Sihanouk and Hun Sen began negotiations for his return. In 1991, Sihanouk returned to Cambodia and became president. He repudiated the Khmer Rouge at that point, denounced them as criminals, and called for the arrest and trial of their leaders. The Khmer Rouge returned to its position of armed opposition. In a U.N.-sponsored election in 1993, Sihanouk's royalist party was elected to power and approved a new constitution that reestabished the monarchy. In September 1993 Sihanouk was again crowned king of Cambodia. He governed with two co-prime ministers, his son Norodom Ranariddh and Hun Sen.

In 1996 the Khmer Rouge splintered apart. The moderate faction defected to Sihanouk and hard-liners under Pol Pot continued guerilla warfare from the mountain jungles. In June 1997, following a disintegration of leadership in the Khmer Rouge, fighting broke out between forces loyal to the two co-prime ministers. In early July, Norodom Ranariddh was deposed by Hun Sen.

Further Reading on Prince Norodom Sihanouk

The personality and views of Prince Sihanouk emerge strongly in John P. Armstrong, Sihanouk Speaks (1964), a book which quotes Sihanouk at considerable length on a wide range of subjects. In 1995 Sihanouk himself published Charisma and Leadership in which he describes his personal encounters with some of the great leaders of the twentieth century. Politics and Power in Cambodia: The Sihanouk Years (1973) and Sihanouk: Prince of Light, Prince of Darkness (1994) both by Milton E. Osborne offer useful information and insights. Cambodia: The Search for Security (1967), by British scholar Michael Leiffer, is a perceptive study of Cambodian foreign policy, highlighting Sihanouk's dominant role in its formation and execution. An earlier and still very useful book on the same subject, which gives an illuminating portrait of Sihanouk in action, is Roger Morton Smith, Cambodia's Foreign Policy (1965). Martin Florian Herz, A Short History of Cambodia (1958), is a good, if very brief, introduction to Cambodian history.