Revered former Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk died of a heart attack on Monday in Beijing at the age of 89. His turbulent life reflected the modern history of Cambodia, a small country that experienced difficulties and tragedies as its fate was swayed by the interests and moves of bigger powers. He was able to successfully navigate through a series of upheavals that wracked his country by employing Realpolitik maneuvers. Although his political behavior lacked consistency, he will be remembered as a leader who managed to maintain the unity of Cambodia in the long run by preventing foreign powers from tearing the country apart.
Because Sihanouk left the political center stage in 2004, his death will not affect the political situation of Cambodia and neighboring countries. But if he had not helped to bring about peace in Cambodia — which had been ravaged for years by strife and conflicts — it would have been impossible for Southeast Asian countries to attain the level of development that they enjoy today under the umbrella of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Sihanouk’s life was one of turmoil. In 1941, he was crowned king of Cambodia by France, which ruled Indochina at that time. In 1953, he achieved the independence of Cambodia. He then strived to implement a policy of Buddhist socialism through a planned economy and foreign policy of neutrality. In the 1960s he managed to bring peace and prosperity to his country and put it in on a modern footing.
But a 1970 coup d’etat by U.S.-backed Prime Minister Lon Nol resulted in Sihanouk going into exile in Beijing. In an effort to topple the Lon Nol regime and regain the throne, Sihanouk allied with the communist Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot. In April 1975 he returned to a Cambodia controlled by the Khmer Rouge but was placed under virtual house arrest. The Khmer Rouge carried out a notorious genocide that cost the lives of an estimated 2 million Cambodians. Although Sihanouk was reviled as a collaborator of the Khmer Rouge, he himself lost five of his children to the regime.
Vietnam invaded Cambodia in December 1978 and toppled the Khmer Rouge. Sihanouk escaped to Beijing and later became president of a coalition government composed of his group, the Khmer Rouge and another group, which were all opposed to the pro-Vietnam government of Heng Samrin.
In the process leading to the signing of a Paris peace accord in 1991 to end the Cambodian civil war, he served as chairman of the Supreme National Council, which was composed of the four parties at war, and served as a mediator. Japan played a meaningful role in the peace process, including the dispatch in 1992 of Ground Self-Defense Force units to Cambodia for peacekeeping operations. In 1993, Sihanouk once again became king of Cambodia but abdicated the throne in 2004.
Although the civil war in Cambodia ended years ago, the nation is still struggling to come to terms with its bloody past. While a war crimes tribunal was set up in 2006 to try Khmer Rouge leaders, only one verdict has been reached. Clearly greater efforts will be needed to bring about true reconciliation in Cambodia.