Foreign Policy Blogs

Sihanouk’s Conflicting Legacy

Photo: AFP/Getty

It was 1940 and the City of Lights had gone dark. Men of importance of Vichy France were meeting in order to decide how to manage their overseas colonies and protectorates in light of the new global reality — Hitler strolling along the Champs-Élysées as the Nazis occupied Paris.

In Indochina, specifically Cambodia, many members of the monarchy had already elucidated the nous n’aimons pas les Français refrain a little too much for Vichy’s liking. But there was a teenage boy, however, several pegs down the totem poll of Cambodia’s royal succession whom the French thought might well tow the Vichy line. His name was Norodom Sihanouk, and the French, thinking he could easily be malleable into their puppet, would not be the last ones to deprecate him.

The former King Sihanouk died on Sunday in Beijing. He was 89-years old. Flags were ordered flown at half-staff throughout the country as a period of mourning was set to commence in a country where any special day of the monarch or its family is reason enough to declare a public (and unpaid for workers) holiday.

Sihanouk’s legacy is rather mixed. He succeeded in kicking the French out just a decade into his rule. And, as one of the founding members of the non-aligned movement, tried to keep Cambodia neutral during the Cold War. He abdicated the thrown in 1955 in order to become Prime Minister, and his foreign policy thenceforth was a disaster due to a litany of factors. It was a constant balancing act between placating a multitude of actors: the U.S. and his communist neighbors, most notably China and Vietnam.

U.S. bombing raids during the Vietnam War would routinely target communist fighters who had traversed the border. This resulted in a massive American bombardment of Cambodia. In 1970, an American-backed coup forced Sihanouk to flee to China. However, with even higher suspicions of the Vietnamese communists, Sihanouk soon found himself allying with Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge.

Some historians have mistakenly taken this as Sihanouk’s support for the Khmer Rouge, but his “alliance” with them was mainly out of self-interests and necessity. When the Khmer Rouge drove out the Vietnamese in 1975, Sihanouk, who had since re-adopted the title of King, returned home but was virtually a prisoner in his own palace. Against a backdrop of absurd communist dictates, the Khmer Rouge systematically destroyed the country and its culture in only four years until the Vietnamese sent them running to the Thai border.

The Vietnamese installed a former Khmer Rouge military commander, Hun Sen, as Prime Minister. He still holds that title today, with only a brief spell out of power since then.

With age, Sihanouk became increasingly frail and always sought out the quality medical care available in China. He abdicated a second time in 2004 which allowed his son to claim the thrown. Despite vowing months ago to die in Cambodia, he ultimately was unable to keep his promise. In Cambodia, those who can afford to leave the country for healthcare do so without question.

Tonight, as I write this post from a cafe adjacent and across from the Royal Palace, I can see hundreds of mourners outside paying their respects; a huge portrait of Sihanouk is lit up in the center of the Palace.

He is remembered fondly amongst the older generation who recall him expelling the French from the country. Independence Monument, a center of activity in the capital of Phnom Penh, was erected to celebrate that achievement. It stands, appropriately, on the intersection of Norodom Boulevard and Sihanouk Boulevard.

Sihanouk’s body will lie in state for three months after which his remains will be cremated and put into a solid golden urn in the Royal Palace.

  • Luke Bakes

    I really can’t agree more with the articles title. Sihanouk really does leave an interesting legacy which is both good and bad. I think that it was good for him to establish political independence from France in the first decade of his presidency. I honestly don’t see how anyone could align with pol-pot one of the biggest murderers in history. At the same time however, he fought against the Vietnamese and tried to stop communism in his own country. I would definitely say this man leaves a confusing legacy. Probably more bad than good. I feel like the result of his recent death will result in Cambodians talking about more change within their government much like Sihanouk did 60 years ago. I guess what I’m trying to say here is that Cambodia’s dark past is fading away and that Cambodians as a whole will have a much brighter future ahead of them.


Tim LaRocco
Tim LaRocco

Tim LaRocco is an adjunct professor of political science at St. Joseph's College in New York. He was previously a Southeast Asia based journalist and his articles have appeared in a variety of political affairs publications. He is also the author of "Hegemony 101: Great Power Behavior in the Regional Domain" (Lambert, 2013). Tim splits his time between Long Island, New York and Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Twitter: @TheRealMrTim.