Saturday, October 20, 2012

Sihanouk : Political Broker

Political broker

Born in 1922, Sihanouk was the eldest son of King Norodom Suramarit and Queen Kossamak.

Educated at French schools in Saigon and in Paris, the Nazi-controlled Vichy government in France crowned Sihanouk king of Cambodia in 1941, bypassing his father in the hope that the 18-year-old could easily be manipulated.

However, after the war Sihanouk embarked on an international campaign aimed at ensuring independence for Cambodia.

It was achieved without bloodshed in 1953 - after nearly a century of French rule. Two years later Sihanouk abdicated in favour of his father and became both prime minister and foreign minister of his country.

He tried - but failed - to keep the country from the Cold War conflict that engulfed South East Asia in the 1970s.

When a US-backed coup installed Lon Nol as Cambodia's leader, Sihanouk - by then alienated by US bombing raids on Vietnamese communist guerrillas inside Cambodia - was forced into exile in Beijing.

It was from there that he struck an ill-fated deal with the emerging Maoist rebel force, the Khmer Rouge. When the Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975, Sihanouk returned as head of state but was subsequently detained.

He remained confined to the royal palace for most of the four years of the regime's rule, during which time an estimated 1.7 million people died.

People were killed or worked and starved to death, as the Khmer Rouge emptied cities and forced Cambodians to work on the land.

Sihanouk later condemned the Khmer Rouge for the deaths of the Cambodians, including of several of his own children.

When Vietnamese forces ousted the Khmer Rouge, Sihanouk went again to Beijing. He was to remain outside the country for 13 years, as Cambodia faced civil war and the struggle to rebuild from economic devastation.

When the UN in 1991 persuaded the Vietnamese to withdraw and set Cambodia on the road to democracy, Sihanouk returned, and was again crowned king in 1993.

His role was increasingly one of broker between Cambodia's warring political factions. But as the country slowly worked its way towards political stability, Sihanouk's health steadily worsened.

In 2004, he announced he would step down in favour of one of his sons, the little-known Norodom Sihamoni. The former ballet dancer was crowned king in October 2004.

After that, Sihanouk spent much of his time overseas, in Beijing and Pyongyang.

But he remained a prominent national figure who - although criticised as autocratic and elitist, and blamed by some for his initial endorsement of the Khmer Rouge - symbolised constancy through Cambodia's years of violence.

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