Remembering Norodom Sihanouk


Monday, October 15, 2012, and I awoke to emails and news reports saying that Norodom Sihanouk, former monarch of Cambodia, who stepped down in favor of his son Norodom Sihamoni in 2004, died of a heart attack on Monday in Beijing where he’d gone for medical treatment.

Sihanouk will be honored by his countrymen and remembered by many for many things; playboy, filmmaker, musician, mercurial personality, one of the founders of the non-aligned movement.  But, I will remember him for more personal reasons.

When I went to Phnom Penh in 2002 as American Ambassador, he was king, having made a deal with the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen to return to the throne.  Given his feeling that the CIA was behind the 1970 coup by Lon Nol which overthrew him, I didn’t expect to have very good relations with him.  It turned out not to be the case.

I found him an engaging and fascinating individual, and thoroughly enjoyed my audiences with him; listening to his accounts of historical figures of the 1950s and 1960s, people with whom he knew intimately.  Although they were sometimes a strain on the system, I also enjoyed his all-night dinner parties that ran from seven pm until the early morning hours, and at which he’d dance and sing and entertain his guests.  Sihanouk was both simple and complex.  I’m convinced that he loved his country, and always sought to do what he felt was best for it.  He enjoyed life to the fullest.  But, he was a product of contrasting eras; on the one hand, the ancient Khmer royal traditions, on the other, the modern, fast-moving twentieth century.  He seemed equally at home in both.

Sadly, only those who follow events in Southeast Asia, or who are students of history, will pay much attention to his passing.  In today’s age of globalization, economic meltdown, Middle East turmoil, and international terrorism, he is not a player of significance.  But, history is a continuum; and as we view the mosaic of our history, present, future, and past; he is one bright tile.

I will certainly never forget the fascinating conversations I had with him from 2002 until my departure from Cambodia in 2005.  It was like a college symposium in international relations, and so much more.  He was a man of many and varied interests and was always willing to share his insights with those who cared to listen.

May he rest in peace.