Of the 15 films Norodom Sihanouk directed during his life, the one titled “an Ambition Reduced to Ashes” (1995) reveals the most insight into the king father’s own view of himself and his legacy.
The film tells the story of a young prince who has been educated by a guru and master who takes particular care that the young prince should ascend the throne one day and become the equal of the greatest Cambodian kings, including King Jayavarman VII.
In the film, the prince is only partly human: he is also of divine essence.
As a future God-King he is advised to stay far apart from the humans. The only problem is that through the love expresses towards a peasant girl in the countryside. He is tempted to become a human being even though this would prevent him from being incarnated into a great king.
The guru tried to intervene and explains to the young girl that if she and the young prince make physical love, the young prince’s real age would appear, his body would be reduced to ashes and his real mission to become the greatest king of Cambodia would never be fulfilled.
The young prince, unable to resist her beauty, finally makes physical love with the young girl. At the end of the night the young prince’s body transforms into that of a very old man reduced to smoking ashes, and dies.
Norodom Sihanouk’s idea behind the movie was to illustrate the conflict between God-nature and human nature, between pleasure and duty.
In this movie, just like in the other movies he shot, Sihanouk is obviously looking at himself and analyzing himself. Through this personal psychoanalysis he sees himself as someone who has been destined to the greatest ambition, but who in some but in some sense could not fulfill it.
Sihanouk had no illusion about himself, but the character is entirely out of common:
He was crowned in 1941 and he abdicated in 1955 to get into politics. According to the Cambodian Constitution he had no right to get into politics. He gave up the throne to become the head of the state untill March 18 1970 Coup d’état, when Lon Nol took the power.
That was not the end of Sihanouk. He was re crowned again in 1993 and in 2003 he retired, this is really unique and there is not another king in the world who could have performed so many political deaths and renaissance.
Sihanouk had many lives in one life. His life can be compared to a stage where he sometimes simultaneously played many parts: King, Statesman, filmmaker, writer, musical composer, epicurean…
It is difficult indeed to put together all of the aspects of the personality of Sihanouk, hence the use of the word paradox may appear to be of some relevance. One thing is sure: as an outstanding politician and statesman, he put himself passionately at the service of Cambodia and would interfere in the most tragic way in the decisive periods of modern Cambodia.
The very cute boy
King Monivong died on April 23, 1941. The crown council then selected Prince Norodom Sihanouk as King of Cambodia which was rule at the time by France’s Vichy regime.
All this begins like a fairy tale. Norodom Sihanouk ascended the throne in September 1941. The Cambodian monarchy is not a hereditary monarchy. This implies that the king is not compulsorily the son of the preceding king. On the contrary the Cambodian monarchy is an elected monarchy. The king is chosen and elected amongst numerous princes, generally from the Norodom or Sisowath families by the Royal Council of the Crown.
Norodom Sihanouk at the time he was crown in 1941
It is not exaggerated to say that the Royal Council of the Crown is an instrument in the hands of the real political power. So, In 1941 when Norodom Sihanouk became the king, the question: Why was Sihanouk chosen? could be equivalent to asking: why did the French want Sihanouk to be the king?
As a joke, the general governor of Indochina, Admiral Decoux’s wife said “because he was a very cute boy”.
Obviously for Admiral Decoux, the general governor of Indochina himself, what was at stake was not Sihanouk’s cuteness, but Sihanouk was also for him the perfect candidate. Sihanouk loved enjoying himself: cars, sports, parties, dancing… Sihanouk was smart enough to persuade the French that he wasn’t really interested at all in politics.
That is the reason why the French chose him: because they believed that he wasn’t interested in power. Once more in history, the old illusion “He’ll do what we want him to do” revealed an incredible political blindness.
Later on Sihanouk wrote about this period of his life when he was chosen to become the King: “My first reaction was of fear, of fright, I broke into tears”.
Sihanouk showed for the first time his incredible ability to wait and his outstanding talent to take the opportunity when it arises.
The Japanese and the independence
The French were soon to discover their mistake. In March 11 1945, under the pressure of the Japanese troops, Sihanouk abrogated the 1863 and 1884 French protectorate treatises and de facto proclaimed the independence of Cambodia.
There was a fly in the ointment as the Japanese had imposed Son Ngoc Than as a prime Minister. Son Ngoc Than was a very popular personality who had to go into exile to Tokyo in 1942 after having organized anti French demonstrations in Phnom Penh in July 1942.
In theory, the French collaborationist Vichy regime and Japan were allies and as such the Japanese troops could have entered French Indochina without toil, but the relationships between French and Japanese were mainly based on mutual distrust: French Indochina could not fit the vision japan had of South East Asia as a part of greater East Asia co-prosperity sphere and the choice of a radical nationalist like Son Ngoc Than was much more convenient for the Japanese than the somewhat ambiguous Sihanouk.
The opposition between the 2 men deserves a thorough attention as it is a highly relevant line of interpretation of the Cambodian politics at least from 1945 to 1993.
On the one side an ideologist whose will consists in translating his project into reality at any cost, on the other side a pragmatist who knows that he shouldn’t indulge in wishful thinking. In short, Norodom Sihanouk was no less nationalist than Son Ngoc Than; the difference between the 2 men lies elsewhere: in the ability to think within the realms of possibility.
Sihanouk knew very well that the time was not ripe for independence as he understood the international situation to a much greater degree than Son Ngoc Than. The following events proved that Sihanouk had been correct.
In 1946 the French returned, placed Son Ngoc Than under arrest and exiled him in France. Sihanouk, meanwhile, was confirmed in his functions. On the one side, Sihanouk was clean as he had abrogated the protectorate treaties under the influence of the Japanese. On the other side, Sihanouk had only been the willing victim of the Japanese and his often denials were another paradoxical way to make it clear that March 11 1945 events were but a final rehearsal.
Sihanouk spent the next years from 1946 to 1952 asking for French concessions and began pleading for Cambodia’s independence. At that time independence was within arm’s reach: the 1st Indochinese conflict had begun in what is today Vietnam.
In Cambodia the situation was characterized by a growing unrest due to Khmer Issarak (Free Khmer) nationalist uprising and the communist Party of Indochina. The Democratic Party like the latters had the total independence of Cambodia as a major part in his program.
The question which remained was: who would get the independence? That question was a decisive one for the future of Cambodia. Once more, Sihanouk was to play the major role. In 1951, thanks to Sihanouk’s intercession, his old enemy Son Ngoc Than was released by the French and returned to Cambodia. At that time the stakes were high because Son Ngoc Thanh’s radicalism appeared as very convincing to a big part of the Cambodian population and he was a major obstacle for Sihanouk. The game which followed is a 3-act masterpiece directed by Sihanouk who displayed once more all his talent:
- He invited Son Ngoc Thanh to negotiate with him. For a radical who built his life on a zero concession principle, negotiation is in essence a dangerous game.
- As Sihanouk didn’t offer him a prominent place, a disappointed Son Ngoc Thanh took the bush and rejoined the Khmer Issarak in February 1952. Sihanouk appeared then to the world as the only peaceful solution.
- In June 1952, as he had to beat the Khmer Issarak by the nose, he launched the Royal Crusade to Independence and went to Paris, Washington, Bangkok with a message “Negotiate with me now”.
At the time of the royal crusade to independence 1952
The French were wise enough to listen to him and Cambodia became an independent state on November 9, 1953. The independence was recognized internationally in July 1954 Geneva conference.
Again Sihanouk proved to be a chess player of a superior level who was several moves in advance on his adversaries.
Sihanouk was the father of Independence, but that was not enough. Sihanouk was a king in a constitutional monarchy where a king is supposed to reign quietly and not to govern. In short, in a parliamentary monarchy the King is the symbol of power, the king does not exert power.
Knowing someone like Sihanouk, one could not imagine that he would be ready to be present at the unveilings of primary schools and to be offered bunches of flowers. Sihanouk wanted to govern. Of course, it would be ridiculous to thing that he wanted power for power: Sihanouk had a vision, the service to which power should be applied.
Sangkum Reastr Niyum (1955 – 1970), Sihanouk’s vision of modernity
Sihanouk had to devise a solution which is amazing like most episodes of Sihanouk’s life. On February 27 1955, he abdicated in favor of his father Suramarit. After he had abdicated, now a simple citizen, Sihanouk launched his Sangkum Reastr Niyum, often translated as Popular Socialist Community, an impressive mixture of nationalism, neutralism, socialism, Buddhism…
It was not really a political party: it was a place where all the real strength of the nation had to meet to build Cambodia’s future.
The candidates of the SRN were then triumphantly elected in 1955 (83% of the votes), and this regime is absolutely essential in order to understand modern Cambodia. Sihanouk was then 33 years old.
As soon as he got the power, Sihanouk displayed his greatest abilities of a politician, builder and architect. A major point was the Bandoeng conference where Sihanouk joined the non-alignment and showed signs of rapprochement with socialist countries. At home, this policy deprived his left-wing adversaries of a trump card as they had no other solution than to create a support committee of Sihanouk’s neutralist policy.
He transformed this country into a huge building site. People can still notice today the new Cambodian architecture in Phnom Penh and in all the provincial capitals.
Building a new Cambodia foreground the apartments for the personnel of the national bank, now the Russian embassy, on the right the Olympic village apartments, on the left the building
He took particular care in developing areas that had been neglected under French rule like Kampot for instance.
Developing Kampot The exhibition Hall 1962
The Kampot exhibition hall present state
The building of Sihanoukville harbor reveals his strong will of independence. At the time of the French protectorate, the entrance and exit door of Cambodia was Saigon: all the goods imported into Cambodia or exported from Cambodia had to be transported through the French colony of Cochinchina.
Building Sihanoukville harbour
Building Sihanoukville harbor
After the independence, Sihanouk could not tolerate any more to have his Cambodian boats controlled by the Vietnamese authority: Cambodia’s exit and entrance door should be inside the Cambodian territory and in the early 60s the Sihanoukville harbor was built.
The beginning of the works of the Sihanoukville oil refinery
Sihanoukville oil refinery
His vision of power had a lot to do with architecture. What Sihanouk wanted for his country could be summed up in one word: Modernity. For 90 years, the French protectorate rule had clipped the prerogatives of the Cambodian monarch. Even if kings like Sisovath (1904 – 1927) or Monivong (1927 – 1941) were revered like gods by their subject, the reality of the power was in the residence and not in the Royal palace.
The suramarit theater
Far from the small provincial capital he inherited from the French, Sihanouk wanted a new architecture for a new vision of power in Cambodia. All the buildings we can still see in Phnom Penh are evidence for this appetite of modernity.
Architecture and education the library of the teachers’ training college the complex designed by Vann Molyvann was unveiled in 1972 Now the Institute of Foreign languages
These buildings are here to remind us that Cambodia was the only country in Southeast Asia with a modern and beautifully functional architecture, far exceeding the other Southeast Asian countries architecture.
The councils of ministers 1956 one of the first Vann Molyvann’s building
A new architecture for a new vision of power The state palace unveiled in 1966
In order to play the delicate diplomatic screenplay which was of course a major challenge during the second Indochinese conflict what we know as the Vietnam War, Sihanouk had to compose with the communist powers, with the western powers as well.
The cold war and Cambodia
Sihanouk was not an ideologist in the sense of the cold war. Sihanouk had the task to preserve the independence and the sovereignty of Cambodia and he chose his friends where he could. He often compared Cambodia to the ant in the middle of the elephants’ fight: the ant had to stay at a reasonable distance from the elephants and to try to persuade them to go fight somewhere else.
Sihanouk’s tour in the South of the country early 60s
Sihanouk had to face several attempts of coup d’état like Sam Sary and Dap Chhuon(1959) where the involvement of the CIA together with the Thai and the republic of Vietnam is beyond doubts.
During the late 60s as the Vietnam War was raging, and it was more and more uneasy for Sihanouk to preserve his neutrality. French President Charles De Gaulle had supported him with his huge speech in the Olympic stadium. For De Gaulle, Sihanouk was the only person able to handle that very difficult situation. The situation was indeed difficult and Cambodia’s neutrality was threatened by the very existence of the Ho Chi Minh trail which went through an important section of Cambodian territory and Vietcong units were using Cambodia as a sanctuary. What could Sihanouk have done? He was aware of the situation and, contrary to his Cambodian right wing, he had already understood that a military solution was totally unrealistic: only through negotiation could a solution emerge. Again and again, Sihanouk can be credited with a deep intelligence of the situation and this is all the more obvious in the light of the events which followed.
De Gaulle watching the boat races with Monique and Sihanouk 1966
As Sihanouk went to France for a holiday in 1970, on March 18 Sihanouk’s right wing government in Phnom Penh, staged a coup d’état. The circumstances in which the coup was performed are still not entirely clear especially about the degree of US involvement. One thing is sure: as the US were contemplating to withdraw their ground troops from South Vietnam, it is difficult to imagine them masterminding a coup d’état in Cambodia. But the fact that the CIA was well aware of what was brewing in Phnom Penh is also beyond doubt.
The coup d’état displayed a high degree of political stupidity: Lon Nol was engaging with a country that had already decided to withdraw its forces from Southeast Asia.
The coup d’état was clearly a parricide and its perpetrators displayed a stunning naivety in thinking that the population would follow them. To be convinced of it, we need only to read what the members of parliament declared the night they overthrew Sihanouk’s regime. They were so outrageous and hysterical in accusing Sihanouk of all the crimes: Sihanouk had had an evil behavior, he was responsible of all what had happened, he had destroyed Cambodia’s morality, had betrayed the country… This hysterical behavior from men who had been not long ago Sihanouk’s faithful followers is an obvious way to justify themselves of the crime just committed. What they held against Sihanouk is so enormous that it cannot be taken seriously.
Sihanouk and the Khmer Rouge
Sihanouk went to Beijing and on March 23 1970 he announced his intention to establish a National United Front of Kampuchea.
This government was a combination of all the various strength which openly opposed Lon Nol regime which a few months later abolished the Monarchy and gave birth to the Khmer Republic.
The game was perilous. There was already a Khmer Rouge presence in the government. That presence was very discreet in the beginning, mainly with personalities with a high degree of education who appeared as acceptable representatives.
In February 1973, after the Paris agreement had been signed between Henry Kissinger and Le Duc, Tho the bombing of North Vietnam had to stop immediately. The US high command turned then the entire US air bombardment campaign onto Cambodia. From Feb 1973 to July 1973, 200,000 tons of bombs were dropped on Cambodian territory.
It is at precisely that time (late February 1973) that the North Vietnamese and the Chinese organized a trip of Sihanouk right inside Cambodia. They used the Ho Chi Minh trail and jungle trucks to bring him right in the middle of Cambodia where he had photographs taken with the Khmer Rouge leaders: Khieu Samphan, Hu Yuon, Hu Nim and a character that according to Sihanouk was only 3rd or 4th rank in the hierarchy: Saloth Sâr who later became known by the name of Pol Pot.
February 1973 inside Cambodian territory Sihanouk with the KR leaders
Sihanouk appeared as the leader of the forces fighting Lon Nol’s Khmer Republic. Sihanouk was too smart not to understand the situation. These Khmer Rouge people who had always been politically and military insignificant became overnight important because they had known how to use the aftermath of the coup d’état of March 18 1970.
Instead of talking of Communism, they advocated the return of Sihanouk’s regime. Let’s bring back Sihanouk to power was an outstanding motto: in the context of a civil war, Sihanouk’s regime was considered as a paradise on earth, and many people joined the Khmer Rouge for that reason. Sihanouk understood that, he knew very well what was going to happen: once the Khmer Rouge got what they wanted they would get rid of him.
The message of Sihanouk March 73 trip is simple: the republican government was unable to control most of Cambodian territory, as an evidence Sihanouk could have his photograph taken right in the central part of Cambodia. From this point of view, Sihanouk’s trip was a success. But Sihanouk was also supposed to meet his Cambodian people, and this was a total failure. The only Cambodian people he could meet were Khmer Rouge.
Back to Beijing, a subtle diplomatic game began. Sihanouk was closely watched by the Khmer Rouge and Ieng Sary had been appointed to keep an eye on him. The Khmer Rouge counted on a total military victory in order to get the power without having to do any concessions: negotiations had to be avoided at any cost.
The French even had the project to bring Sihanouk back to Cambodia and that would have meant the end of the war. Unfortunately, both the Khmer Rouge and Nixon, followed by President Ford refused it. By the time the US accepted that solution in early April 75, it was too late.
April 75 was the beginning of a nightmare which was to last 3 years 8 month and 20 days.
Sihanouk was then allowed to come to Phnom Penh, in Sept 75, where he spent 16 days. According to his functions he was head of the state. He then left again for a diplomatic tour to the United Nations, and a number of countries such as Rumania, Yugoslavia, China and North Korea. Meanwhile the news had begun spreading over the reality of the Khmer Rouge regime and Sihanouk contemplated his resignation. He finally decided to go back to Phnom Penh “because of his love for his people and his need to share their fate”. One thing is sure: when he arrived in January 1976, he had no illusions about the real nature of the KR regime.
On April 2 1976 his resignation was accepted. After that, he remained in his palace with his wife and his two children Narindrapong and Sihamoni. The other members of his family who came to PP with him were transported away from the city and killed.
Sihanouk was then like a prisoner in his royal palace. He described this period in his book “Prisoner of the Khmer Rouge”.
As the noise of the Vietnamese guns could be heard from Phnom Penh in early January 1979, Pol Pot paid Sihanouk a visit for the first time. Sihanouk would later recall the impressions of the four-hour talks.
Pol Pot appeared to him as a charismatic personality, a kind of Bluebeard who would seduce his victims with his soft voice and his gentle manners. Pol Pot asked him to take the last plane to Beijing and then to go to the United States to defend Cambodia’s interest. Sihanouk had no other choice but to accept and on January 6, he fled out of Phnom Penh one day before the Vietnamese army reached the capital.
On January 8 Sihanouk arrived to Beijing where he held a press conference. Sihanouk then faced a terrible dilemma: on the one side, he had to condemn the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, on the other he could not refrain from denouncing Pol Pot and his regime. One day later he let to the United Nations where he was closely watched by the Khmer Rouge in New York.
Sihanouk then tried to defect from the Khmer Rouges and was finally convinced not to do so by the Chinese. He was then offered by Deng Xiao Ping a residence in Beijing where he settled in February 1979. At that time, most observers considered that his leading political part had reached an end. This was underestimating Sihanouk. At the beginning it was no question for him to collaborate with his former jailers who were responsible of the death of hundreds of thousands Cambodians, amongst them members of his family who came back to Phnom Penh with him in 1975. The old dialectics between the part a statesman is expected to play and his personal feelings was at work. Again Sihanouk didn’t hesitate very long and on June 1982 the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea (CGDK) was formed in Kuala Lumpur: Sihanouk called it “a pact with the devil”. Sihanouk could then depart from his own diplomatic strategy.
The conjunction of two facts is essential to understand what followed: Sihanouk diplomacy and the fact Gorbatchev’s Soviet Union didn’t intend to support the Vietnamese military adventures in Cambodia forever. All the Cambodian factions then agreed on the sending of UN forces to Cambodia in 1992 to organize the May, 1993 election.
The Paris International Peace Conference could take place on October 23 1991 and 19 nations attended it.
After the United Nations Transitional Authority for Cambodia (UNTAC)-sponsored elections took place in May 1993, the Members of Parliament voted a special motion to grant Sihanouk “full and special powers” and all the members of the assembly declared that the March 18 1970 coup d’état had illegally stripped the Prince from his functions of Head of the State.
Return to the throne
On September 24 1993, Sihanouk was re crown as King of Cambodia more than 38 years after he had abdicated. Sihanouk was then a constitutional monarch who could rule but not govern, although he was the commander of the armed forces and could use a veto over the appointment of ministers and judges.
In 2003 Sihanouk expressed his will to retire. He did not abdicate and Sihamoni was elected as the new king by the crown council.
Sihanouk didn’t remain inactive. He went on publishing on his website explaining his vision of the course of Cambodian history.
On October 15 2012 Norodom Sihanouk’s time on planet earth ended.
Milton Osborne’s book “Sihanouk prince of light, Sihanouk prince of darkness” reminds us that Sihanouk’s life and deeds are not solely a rosy picture.
As a king and mainly as a prince after his abdication to become the head of the state, the vision the people had of Sihanouk has always been strong and uncompromising: faithful followers and implacable enemies.
A moralistic approach wouldn’t allow us to understand such an outstanding personality. For the analyst, the many sided aspects of his character and his numerous activities generate confusion: what does the movie maker has to do with the statesman? Yet it is not Sihanouk’s personality that is paradoxical, but Sihanouk’s life and deeds display an incredible capacity to integrate paradoxes into an art of governing.