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His majesty the king father of Cambodia Sihanouk died in Beijing on Oct. 15, two weeks short of his 90th birthday.
For decades, he played various roles in Cambodian politics since his coronation by the French in 1941: king, prince, head of state, head of the Khmer Rouge, head of the opposition coalition and back again as king and finally as king-father.
He was the last survivor of the leaders from mostly newly independent Asian and African countries who met in 1955 in Bandung, to pave the way for the Non-Aligned movement (NAM) and the first Conference of Heads of State or Government of Non-Aligned Countries in Belgrade in 1961. NAM wanted to be neutral between the Western and Eastern blocs in the cold war.
Sihanouk greatly outlived his Bandung cohorts: Indian prime minister Nehru by 48 years. Egyptian and Indonesian leaders Nasser and Sukarno respectively by 42 years and Communist Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai by 36 years.
It was in Bandung that he first met Bung Karno who became a true personal friend of Sihanouk. Sukarno visited Cambodia five times between 1959 and 1965, more than any other leader. In turn, Sihanouk accompanied by his wife princess Monique, now Queen Monineath, reciprocated each visit.
Sihanouk wrote that Monique unwittingly charmed Sukarno and thus indirectly contributed to his becoming an intimate friend of the hero of Indonesian independence. Sukarno often said that the only lady worthy of his admiration was Monique. Sihanouk then quipped, “Knowing his reputation you might well ask, why he traveled so often to Cambodia?” Sihanouk was quick to answer his own question: Sukarno was a man who valued true friendship. “In myself and Monique he found a brother and a younger sister.”
Sihanouk continued: “Sukarno considered me his most intimate fiend and a true brother. And thus he rendered me the ultimate tribute of being privy to his intricate marital trials and tribulations.”
While Sihanouk met most of Sukarno’s wives, the president only met Princess Monique although Sihanouk himself has married six times, including to two of his aunts. Princess Monique, his sixth wife, did not tolerate other women in his life after they were married.
Sihanouk wrote that in 1955 he met Fatmawati, Sukarno’s first official wife and a woman much loved by all Indonesians. Later he met Hartini, whom he said was “Bung Karno’s delightful and pleasant second wife”.
One day during a trip to Bali they had to fly through a most violent storm. Hartini, seated next to Sihanouk, became airsick. When Sihanouk suggested summoning the physician from the back, Hartini charmingly answered, in a voice loud enough to be heard by her husband, who was entirely taken up by Monique, that Sihanouk’s affectionate presence at her side was the best remedy for her malady. This was a subtle revenge on her neglectful husband, “who was busily courting Monique” wrote Sihanouk.
One day later Madame Ratna Sari Dewi, Sukarno’s Japanese wife, made him promise that Sihanouk would invite them both for dinner. Sukarno the organized a sumptuous private dinner billed as Sihanouk’s feast in honor of Dewi. Sihanouk narrates that the next day Hartini was secretly informed of “my treason against her in favor of Dewi.” Obviously hurt, Hartini was very cool toward him the next day at the 10th anniversary of the Bandung conference. He also met Haryati, “whose attraction escaped me” he wrote.
However, the friendship between the two leaders goes much deeper than these romantic stories would suggest. During the Cold War, Southeast Asia was involved in power struggles for hegemony in the region. During the 1960s, in the spirit of Bandung, Sukarno and Sihanouk expressed neutrality in the Cold War while trying to maintain a political balance between a right-wing military and a growing Communist movement, the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.
Neutrality was not acceptable to the US and both leaders were forced to turn to the left. Ultimately both were overthrown by anti-Communist military elements close to the United States. But Sihanouk proved to be more resilient than Sukarno, who died under house arrest ordered by his successor Soeharto.
Decades of political turbulence, saw the then prince Sihanouk overthrown and named titular head of the Khmer Rouge. When the Paris Peace Agreements on Cambodia were signed in October 1991 and after elections in 1993, a new Royal Government of Cambodia was inaugurated in which Sihanouk served as a constitutional monarch. Hun Sen, who first became co-prime minister in 1993, is still today the sole prime minister.
Frustrated with his role as figurehead king, Sihanouk gave up the throne in 2004 to one of his sons, Norodom Sihamoni, keeping the title of king-father and spending most of his time in Beijing, nursing his many illnesses until his death.
Both Sukarno and king-father Sihanouk will always be remembered by the peoples of Indonesia and Cambodia as the fathers of national independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and security of their respective countries.
They were both frustrated by failure to bring economic growth and prosperity to their poor countries. That task was successfully accomplished by their successors, president Soeharto of Indonesia and prime minister Hun Sen of Cambodia respectively.
The writer is a retired United Nations civil servant from Indonesia. His last position was the UN Secretary-General’s representative in Cambodia, 1994-97. He is the author of Dancing in Shadows: Sihanouk.