The Final Return of King Sihanouk

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Cambodia's singular, eccentric leader comes home to rest.

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A large portrait of Sihanouk graces the face of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, on October 17. (Sebastian Strangio)

PHNOM PENH -- On Wednesday, Norodom Sihanouk made his final, memorable return to Cambodia. The revered monarch died of a heart attack in Beijing on October 15, and Cambodians came out in their tens of thousands as his gold funeral carriage arrived from China and made its way slowly through the capital. Most were dressed in white, clutching lotus flowers, candles and portraits of the beloved "King Father," who would have turned 90 on October 31. Some wept openly as the coffin -- festooned with flowers and draped with the kingdom's royal blue standard -- crept along the city's broad French-built boulevards toward the Royal Palace. Once Sihanouk's body was inside the palace grounds, crowds of mourners knelt in prayer, setting fire to biers of joss-sticks that sent plumes of fragrant smoke billowing into the night sky.

"I hope he gets reborn soon," said 78-year-old Sam Sokhan, who waited for Sihanouk's funeral procession along the boulevard that bears his name. "I pray for the king in heaven, and when he gets there I hope he takes a look back at the people who are respecting him for what he has done."

During a storied career stretching more than 60 years, Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia helped transform his country from French colony to nascent modern state, before seeing it consumed in the fires of civil war and the brutal dictatorship of the Khmer Rouge. He served in a bewildering array of roles, first as king, and subsequently as prime minister, non-aligned leader, communist figurehead, leader-in-exile, and then as constitutional monarch until his retirement in 2004. "The whole Cambodian people will mourn his death," said Prince Sisowath Thomico, a royal family member and personal aide to Sihanouk. "Most of all, he will be remembered as the father of Cambodian independence."

The revered monarch leaves behind a complex legacy. During his long career at the center of Cambodian politics, he was a small country's symbol and talisman, its blessing and -- in some instances, arguably -- its curse. In his biography of Sihanouk, Milton Osborne described him as a "politician much more concerned with achieving a limited number of practical goals than with developing a coherent political philosophy" -- and his apparent lack of consistency confused and frustrated Western observers. But Sihanouk's twists and turns masked an unwavering conviction that he alone had the ability to unite his people during an era of great upheaval. Indeed, Sihanouk saw little distinction between his own interests and those of his country; in his own mind, and for many of his countrymen, he was Cambodia -- a trait that was his greatest strength, but also, as with his key role in the 1970s rise of the murderous Khmer Rouge, his greatest weakness.

Norodom Sihanouk was born in Phnom Penh on October 31, 1922 and grew up among the manicured gardens and swooping eaves of the Royal Palace. In 1941, the French -- then in control of Cambodia -- placed Sihanouk on the throne, expecting that the gangly 18-year-old would be a malleable figure. Their assumption will forever belong in the annals of political missteps: after his first unsteady years, Sihanouk became a headstrong young king, outmaneuvering the French authorities and helping win Cambodia's independence from Paris in 1953.

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A Buddhist monk listens to a radio broadcast as he awaits the arrival of Norodom Sihanouk's coffin outside the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh on October 17. (Sebastian Strangio)

Two years later, constrained by what he later described as the "terrible servitude and crushing responsibilities" of kingship, Sihanouk abdicated in favor of his father in order to take a more active role in politics. He built a powerful political movement, the Sangkum Reastr Niyum, which leveraged his massive popularity among Cambodia's predominantly rural population and set Cambodia on its first steps as a modern nation. He built up the education system, sculpting Phnom Penh into a modern capital and expanding the small agrarian economy. Chea Vannath, who grew up in Cambodia in the 1950s and 1960s, said that after decades of French rule, Sihanouk's rule "dignified the people -- they were proud to be Cambodian."

As the Cold War deepened and neighboring Vietnam slipped into the maelstrom of civil war, Sihanouk attempted to keep his country neutral, dancing delicately between the United States and the communist bloc. He was a founding member of the non-aligned movement -- through which he struck up a life-long friendship with North Korea's reclusive leader, Kim Il-sung -- but he accepted U.S. aid and maintained good relations with communist China. Premier Zhou Enlai was another close personal friend.

The country's "Golden Age" -- as many Cambodians would later remember the 1950s and 1960s -- was dominated by the personality of Sihanouk, who combined bravura statesmanship with side roles as filmmaker, jazz musician, socialite and playboy. (Like many of his royal forbears, Sihanouk had dozens of concubines and fathered a total of 14 children). "You can say all you like about Sihanouk: that he's an atrocious liar, a madman, a fraud, a swashbuckler, an international blot," Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci wrote in June 1973. "But you cannot deny how in this age in which the political arena seems to generate only dull, obtuse and boring characters with no imagination, he's a kind of miracle."

Sihanouk's constant political shifts and well-cultivated dilettantism were a bewildering mix -- the descriptor "mercurial" quickly became compulsory in foreign-news dispatches -- but the prince maintained that he was motivated throughout by a single, consistent aim: "the defense of the independence, the territorial integrity, and the dignity of my country and my people."

During his long career at the center of Cambodian politics, he was a small country's symbol and talisman, its blessing and -- in some instances, arguably -- its curse.

Cambodia was often depicted as a fairy-tale kingdom steeped in tradition, but Sihanouk's modernized form of feudalism left little room for dissent. He outmaneuvered his parliamentary opponents, convincing (or forcing) many to abandon their parties and join his own. Those who resisted were ruthlessly pursued by the prince's security forces. Chief among these were Cambodia's relatively few communists, whom Sihanouk famously dubbed the "Khmers Rouges," led by Saloth Sar, later to emerge from obscurity under the nom de guerre Pol Pot.

By the mid-1960s, Sihanouk's diplomatic high-wire act, designed to keep Cambodia out of the Vietnam War, had started to backfire. Domestic opposition mounted. Convinced that the Vietnamese communists would eventually prevail over the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese regime, Sihanouk had quietly acquiesced to the transport of communist supplies along the "Ho Chi Minh trail" through eastern Cambodia and up from the port of Sihanoukville. The concession inflamed anti-Communist and anti-Vietnamese sentiment and added to discontent over the regime's corruption and economic mismanagement.

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Sebastian Strangio is an Australian journalist based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. His reporting from across Asia has appeared in Slate, Foreign Policy, The Economist, and other publications.

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