Denis Gray: A Look At Cambodia's Former King

Roundup: Talking About History

Just as the twilight dims the gilded spires and burnished eaves of the fairytale palace where his remains will rest, Norodom Sihanouk - king, clown, prisoner, political escape artist - is fading from a stage he dominated for half a century of periodic triumph amid unrelenting tragedy.

Indochina, as one of the hottest Cold War battlefields, put his small, exotic, impoverished country on the world map. But so did this larger-than-life character - lovable and detested, greatly gifted and deeply flawed - who wrested Cambodian independence from France, survived wars and the Khmer Rouge holocaust and, for a time, juggled the major powers to secure peace for his country.

In contrast to today's bland politicians, Sihanouk crooned his own love songs to foreign VIPs, regaled Cambodians with earthy tales of conquest, and eased tension at pivotal conferences with jokes and soprano-pitched giggles. He variously embraced, castigated and basked in the praise of towering 20th-century figures he has outlived: Nehru, Sukarno, Charles de Gaulle, Mao Zedong, John F. Kennedy.

Now 82 and suffering from cancer, Sihanouk is no longer an international player. At home, a young generation eager to plug into the globalising present has relegated him to the history books. Few regard Sihanouk - like many once did - as a divinely anointed descendent of those who ruled Cambodia's ancient, wondrous kingdom of Angkor.
But the ex-king's prodigious energy doesn't seem to have ebbed, even though he's hospitalised in Beijing with cancer. An avid blogger, he fences from his bedside with critics and issues pronouncements on everything from domestic politics to favourite movie stars on a website that attracts about 1000 hits a day.

Sihanouk had mounted the throne in 1941 as a malleable - or so the French thought - 19-year-old. Twelve years later the colonial yoke was lifted and Sihanouk, emerging as a hero, set about building a unified state with himself at its centre.
In 1955, wanting more freedom for political manoeuvre, Sihanouk abdicated in favour of his father, Norodom Suramarit, and set up a mass political party, winning election after election but exposing his tragic flaw - immense vanity.

"His greatest fault was never to let anyone else but himself have his own opinion. He was the classic tree under which nothing could grow. Sihanouk was not Cambodia but he thought he was," says Milton Osborne, an Australian historian and author of the biography Sihanouk, Prince of Light, Prince of Darkness. Osborne says Sihanouk could have reshaped Cambodia's still semi-feudal institutions, but had little interest in doing so. This neglect spawned a terrible revolution and allowed the heritage of Sihanouk's heyday - corruption, a greedy elite, a dangerous gap between rich and poor - to persist into the present.

"History will prove that he shares some of the responsibility for the evils which befell Cambodia," says Lao Mong Hay, a lawyer and human rights advocate who has tracked Sihanouk's career for decades.

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