Cambodia's Former King Sihanouk Dies At 89, Leaves Mixed Legacy



King Norodom Sihanouk died in Beijing early Monday morning, reports the Cambodia Daily. The former monarch was about to celebrate his 90th birthday.

Prince Sisowath Thomico, chief of cabinet for the late king said he had suffered a heart attack, after suffering fragile health for many years, and being treated for prostate cancer in the mid-1990s.

“His death was a great loss to Cambodia,” Prince Sisowath Thomico was quoted as saying by the BBC. “King Sihanouk did not belong to his family, he belonged to Cambodia and to history.”

Born in 1922, Sihanouk was crowned king of Cambodia in 1941. In 1953, he obtained his country’s independence from the French peacefully after years of a diplomatic campaign he called the “Royal Crusade.”

In 1970, a U.S.-backed coup ousted him from power, installing Cambodian General Lon Nol as the country's leader. Sihanouk was forced into exile in Beijing.

At the urging of his new Chinese patrons, says the New York Times, Sihanouk allied himself with the Maoist rebels known as the Khmer Rouge, lending them his prestige and huge popularity, particularly in rural Cambodia. His support allowed the rebels to extend their ranks, particularly among peasants who believed they were fighting to reinstate the king.

When the Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975, Sihanouk was returned as a president for a year, and then placed under house arrest at the royal palace with his wife, Queen Monineath. They were detained at the palace in Phnom Penh for the four years of the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror.

“The king was under a form of house arrest during the reign of terror but has never quite been able to distance himself from the horrors he enabled by serving as the killer's puppet head of state,” said Australia’s ABC.

During the regime, more than 1.7 million people (one fifth of the country’s population) died. The Khmer Rouge believed society was corrupt and wanted to implement a proletariat utopia, sending Cambodians out of the towns and into work camps and farms. Religion and intellectual professions were banned; monks, teachers, and intellectuals were tortured and murdered. The country was left in a devastation that it would take years to recover from.

In 1979, Vietnamese forces invaded Cambodia and ousted the Khmer Rouge. In a controversial move, King Sihanouk went to the United Nations to defend Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, saying the country’s enemy was Vietnam, recalled the New York Times. He remained in Beijing for 13 years, while his country struggled to rebuild itself.

“He was a big part of the problems I suppose at some points in Cambodian history, but he was also a very big part of the solution and I enjoyed enormously working with him. He was an evanescent, mercurial kind of a character who was deeply engaging and an awful lot of fun,” said former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans on ABC.

Sihanouk returned to Phnom Penh after Vietnam’s withdrawal from the country in 1991 and was reinstated as king in 1993. He stepped down from the throne in 2004 in favor of his son, King Norodom Sihamoni, a former ballet dancer.

After his abdication, he spent most of his time between Beijing, where he lived, and the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, reports the BBC.

Cambodia says the body of revered former King Sihanouk will be displayed for 3 months in Phnom Penh before a lavish state funeral.

— Radio Australia News (@RANews) October 15, 2012

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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