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Geopolitics

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

CAMBODIA DAILY (Cambodia), BBC (UK), NEW YORK TIMES (USA), ABC (Australia)

Worldcrunch

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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