Bidding Lea Heuy To Cambodia's Controversial King

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is "The World", a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH Boston. Here are just some of the words used to describe the former King of Cambodia, Norodom Sihanouk: flamboyant, cunning, ruthless, revered, and reviled. Today, Norodom Sihanouk died in Beijing after suffering a heart attack. He was eighty-nine years old. Sihanouk first became King of Cambodia in 1941 when he was only eighteen. He went on to become a fundamental, yet always controversial part of his country's history. The World's Mary Kay Magistad is in Beijing and has followed the late king for years. And, Mary Kay, this must have really felt like the end of an era for you anyway.

Mary Kay Magistad: Well, absolutely. And as I'm listening to that list of words describing Sihanouk, the ones left out are "charming" and "highly entertaining". I mean I went to many a four-hour news conference that he held and it sounds like that might have been agony, but, in fact, journalists loved going to his news conferences because he would sometimes be histrionic, he would be quoting poetry, he would play off of journalists who might quote poetry back to him. He was always reading very carefully what everyone wrote about him and occasionally he'd go off in a sulk because he didn't like some cartoon that had been made about him. In fact, this held up the Cambodian peace talks in 1990 I think for a couple of days. He was just an extraordinarily colorful figure.

Werman: So colorful could be a good thing, but if you pull back, generally what's going to be the legacy of King Sihanouk?

Magistad: Well, different people would answer that very differently.One part of the legacy is that he helped lead Cambodia to independence from France, and that's something the French definitely didn't expect when they made him King when he was a teenager. After that though, he felt that he had the ability to be able to outmaneuver the great powers. So as the Vietnam war was building up on Cambodia's border, he forged relations with China, he helped to found the non-aligned movement, he tried to keep friendly relations with Vietnam and he sort of tried to have it both ways. So the Vietnamese said, "Hey, we want to bring arms across Cambodian territory." He said, "Sure." When President Nixon said, "Hey, we don't like the Vietnamese bringing arms across the country. We're going to bomb along the border," he didn't really protest, but that bombing led to the coup that ousted him from power in 1970 and he never really forgave the Americans for that and he never forgave Lon Nol for that, who was the general who threw him out. So Sihanouk went and joined the Khmer Rouge, again thinking that he could outmaneuver them. Instead, they used him, they came to power, they put him under palace arrest, they killed some of his children, they almost killed him. Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai has to intervene to stop that from happening. He gets out of palace arrest when the Khmer Rouge are thrown out of power and once again he aligns himself with them to try to push the Vietnamese out of Cambodia. And right to the peace accord in 1991, he thought he was outmaneuvering other, the Khmer Rouge, the Americans, the Vietnamese. In the end, Sihanouk ended up getting pushed to the edges of political life by someone who had kind of learned from him, learned at his knee, Hun Sen, who remains the premier in Cambodia now.

Werman: Politically, it sounds like King Sihanouk kind of wavered in the wind.

Magistad: Many people called him mercurial, and in fact, he liked to play off of that and say, "Yes, I'm called the mercurial prince." He had a very high voice. "Yes, I'm mercurial, but I'm canny," and he really did see himself as almost a Shakespearean character, someone who was almost larger than life, who was playing out on this great stage of Southeast Asian politics at a time when Southeast Asian politics really mattered. And in his spare time, when he should have been governing the country in the 1960s, he would make films with a North Korean film crew because Kim Il-sung was one of his good friends, and he would write love songs and he would play the saxophone, and then he would execute political opponents and then he would make films of the executions and show them in theaters around the country so other people didn't think about opposing him.

Werman: How was he viewed by the US government?

Magistad: The US government found Sihanouk to be kind of a pain in the neck quite often and, in fact, Sihanouk had a sort of troubled relationship with the US, particularly in the 1960s. And this wasn't just with the US government. Peter O'Toole was in Cambodia making the film "Lord Jim" and he ended up complaining in a Time Magazine article that Cambodia was a horrible place, all these mosquitoes, he found a snake in his soup, he never wants to go back. Sihanouk was so angry and he demanded that the US government should shut down Time Magazine. The US government explained that they didn't do that kind of thing, but once Sihanouk was out, there wasn't like there was any reconciliation between the US and Sihanouk. That didn't really start to happen until after the Khmer Rouge were driven from power by invading Vietnamese troops. Finally, the US and Sihanouk were on the same page and eventually in the early 2000s he decided that he was gonna bow out of royal life in Cambodia, so he handed the throne over to his gay ballet dancer son who is now the King of Cambodia, Sihamoni.

Werman: The World's Mary Kay Magistad in Beijing telling us about the late King Sihanouk of Cambodia. Good to speak with you, Mary Kay. Thanks.

Magistad: Thanks, Marco.