Former king of Cambodia;
Born: October 31, 1922; Died: October 15, 2012.
Norodom Sihanouk, who has died aged 89 of a heart attack, was the former Cambodian king who remained an influential figure in his country's politics through half a century of war, genocide and upheaval. He was a key figure for six decades but abdicated in 2004, citing poor health, and was succeeded by a son, Norodom Sihamoni.
Sihanouk saw Cambodia reel from colony to kingdom, US-backed regime to Khmer Rouge killing field and foreign-occupied land to guerrilla war zone – and finally to a fragile experiment with democracy. He was a feudal-style monarch beloved by his people, but he was seldom able to deliver the stability they craved through decades of violence.
Born in 1922 he enjoyed a pampered childhood in French colonial Indo-China. In 1941, the French crowned the 19-year-old rather than relatives closer in line to the throne, thinking the pudgy, giggling prince would be easy to control. They were the first of many to underestimate him, and by 1953 the French were out.
Two years later, he stepped down from the throne, organised a mass political party and steered Cambodia towards uneasy neutrality at the height of the Cold War.
He accepted limited US aid and nurtured relations with communist China. He was also a founder of the Non-Aligned Movement.
Mr Sihanouk was a ruthless politician, talented dilettante and tireless playboy, caught up in endless, almost childlike enthusiasms.
He made movies, painted, composed music, fielded a palace football team and led his own jazz band. His large appetite extended to fast cars, food and women. He married at least five times – some say six – and fathered 14 children.
After 1960, he drifted toward the communist camp, seeking assurances from his powerful neighbours, China and Vietnam, that his country's neutrality would be respected. In 1965, he broke off relations with Washington as US involvement in the Vietnam War shifted into high gear. But by 1969, worried about increasing Vietnamese communist use of Cambodian soil, he made new overtures to the United States and turned against China.
Sihanouk's top priority was to keep Cambodia out of the war, but he could not. US aircraft bombed Vietnamese communist sanctuaries in Cambodia with increasing regularity and his protests were ignored.
In 1970, a US-backed coup sent the prince to Beijing for years of lonely, if lavish, exile. Within weeks, war broke out, beginning a systematic destruction of Cambodia that killed millions and impoverished the survivors.
Sihanouk, seeking to regain the throne, joined the Khmer Rouge-dominated rebels after his overthrow. They had numbered only a few hundred until then, but his presence gave them a legitimacy they had never before enjoyed.
The alliance left him open to criticism that he opened the way for the Khmer Rouge holocaust, but his relations with the rebels were always strained.
When the Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975 and Sihanouk returned home, they detained him and ordered his execution. Only the personal intervention of Chinese leader Zhou Enlai saved him.
With Sihanouk under house arrest in the Royal Palace, the Khmer Rouge ran an ultra-radical Maoist regime from 1975 to 1979, emptying the cities to create a vast forced labour camp. An estimated 1.7 million Cambodians were executed or died of disease and hunger under their rule.
Vietnam invaded Cambodia in December 1978 and toppled the Khmer Rouge a few weeks later. Freed as the Vietnamese advanced on Phnom Penh, Sihanouk found exile in Beijing and North Korea.
From there, he headed an unlikely coalition of three guerrilla groups fighting the Vietnamese-installed puppet government in a war that lasted a decade.
In a mix of politics and theatre – bringing his French poodle to negotiations, singing love songs over elaborate dinners – he engineered a ceasefire and moves toward national unity and peace.
He headed the United Nations-supported interim structure that ran Cambodia until the 1993 elections, lending his prestige to attempts to unite Cambodia's factions.
The election was won by the royalist FUNCINPEC party of his son, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, but it was forced into a coalition with the Cambodian People's Party of former Khmer Rouge officer Hun Sen.
In September 1993, Sihanouk re-ascended the throne in a traditional Khmer coronation.
But the bright promise of the elections soon faded. Four years after the polls, Hun Sen ended his constant bickering with Ranariddh by overthrowing the prince in a violent coup that shattered the results of the election.
But international pressure forced Hun Sen to accept Ranariddh's return for a second election in 1998, which was narrowly won by Hun Sen, but ended in more bloodshed as the royalists and other opposition parties forced a constitutional crisis by refusing to join a coalition with the CPP.
Sihanouk stayed on the sidelines for most of the two-year crisis, but as demonstrators clashed in the streets of Phnom Penh, he finally intervened by urging Ranariddh to accept a new coalition with his enemy Hun Sen.
During his last years, Sihanouk's profile and influence receded. While old people in the countryside still held him in reverence, the young generation regarded him as a figure of the past and one partly responsible for Cambodia's tragedy.
Rarely at a loss for words, he became for a time a prolific blogger, posting his musings on current affairs and past controversies. Most of his writing was literally in his own hand – his site featured images of letters, usually in French in a cramped cursive script, along with handwritten marginalia to news clippings that caught his interest.
His production tailed off as he retreated further from the public eye, spending more time under doctors' care in Beijing.
Ailing and weary of politics, he stepped down from the throne in 2004 in favour of Sihamoni, a well-liked personality but one with little of the experience needed to negotiate Cambodia's political minefields.
Senior officials in Hun Sen's party were said to favour Sihamoni, a one-time ballet dancer and cultural ambassador, rather than a more combative figure to sit on the influential throne.
In late 2011, on his return from another extended stay in China, Sihanouk dramatically declared that he never intended to leave his homeland again. But true to his mercurial reputation, he flew off to Beijing a few months later for medical care.
During the same period, some of the defendants at Cambodia's UN-assisted genocide trial of former senior Khmer Rouge figures sought to divert blame from themselves by suggesting that Sihanouk, as their collaborator, shared responsibility for their actions, despite his powerlessness as their virtual prisoner.
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