October 16, 2012
A Malaysian Ambassador’s Tribute to the Departed King of Cambodia
King Norodom Sihanouk: The last of the Non-Aligned Movement Pioneers
THE late King Norodom Sihanouk would have been 90 years this month. Asia has lost a staunch statesman of long-standing. The late monarch, the last of the fabled god-kings of Angkor, lived a full and examined life. He had always shown deep passion for his country and Asia.
Despite the turbulence that characterised much of his reign — American bombing, genocide and foreign occupation — he, in later years, proved pivotal in finally bringing peace, not only to his country but the region as well.
He oversaw the rebirth of a new Cambodia virtually from ground zero: restored constitutional monarchy and established a pluralistic political system. By popular acclaim, he was re-instated king of Cambodia in 1993, and since then, a democratically elected government has ruled there.
No less significant was his support for Cambodia joining ASEAN in 1997. He staunchly resisted efforts to get Cambodia to join other regional groupings, like the Southeast Treaty Organisation, always insisting on a “totally independent and neutral Cambodia”.
As the last surviving leader of the 1955 Afro-Asian Conference in Bandung, Sihanouk, along with other Asian leaders like Nehru and Sukarno, too, will be remembered for giving voice to the new diplomacy of non-alignment.
He abdicated the throne of his own volition in 1955 in favour of his father to become prime minister and head of government, so as to participate in the fledgling democratic process.
While he was as much a cause and a victim of circumstances, both internal and external, a lot of them were beyond his control. Indeed, Cambodia was a “sideshow” to the bigger war, the ideological struggle that underpinned the Cold War. His survival spanned several generations and different socio-political circumstances: half-a-century of French colonial rule and post-independence confrontation among major powers despite his best efforts to maintain tenuous neutrality in war-ravaged Indochina, and the attempt by Pol Pot to create an agrarian utopia.
All these conspired in the infamous 1970 Central Intelligence Agency-engineered coup d’etat by General Lon Lol, culminating in the Pol Pot genocide (1975-79), his forced exile to Beijing and a decade-long Vietnamese Occupation (1979-89).
He returned to Cambodia in 1990 under the Paris Peace Agreement signed on Oct 23 that year and was elected the President of the Supreme National Council of Cambodia, which governed the country during the period of the United Nations administration from 1991 until free and fair elections were held and produced a sovereign government in 1993.
His charismatic personality and moral authority, deftness and craftiness held the cantankerous warring factions (the royalists, the democrats, the Khmer Rouge and that of Hun Sen) together during those trying times.
It was largely on account of him that the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia remained to this day the most successful of UN missions in the world, a smooth and rapid transfer of power to Cambodians and peace to the region, one done on time and within budget.
Only after Sihanouk’s re-ascension to the throne as constitutional monarch did Cambodia begin to see better times.Every other form of government, including an absolute monarchy, an executive monarchy, an autocracy, Lon Lol’s Khmer Republic and the Pol Pot’s Democratic Kampuchea, had been a disaster.
Sihanouk’s re-coronation ceremony in 1993 in the golden-roofed royal palace in Phnom Penh is still vividly etched in the writer’s memory.
The Prince returned to the 3,000-year-old Khmer throne amid pomp and ceremony like no other — trumpeters galore, glittering honour guards, the chanting of Pali mantras and time-honoured Hindu and Buddhist rites in the presence of Muslim and Christian elders and the diplomatic corps. The whole ceremony was as though Sihanouk was turning the clock back to the days when the Khmer monarch had a touch of divinity.
The other memory is that of Sihanouk’s fond gratitude to, and special warmth for, Malaysia for having been a steadfast and loyal friend to the Cambodian people. The friendship goes back over many years, from the time of Tunku Abdul Rahman to the formation of the Cambodian Government of Democratic Kampuchea in Kuala Lumpur, largely through efforts of the late Tun Ghazali Shafie and the personal rapport that our successive leaders established.
He showed his gratitude in many subtle ways. He offered the home of his beloved mother, the late Queen Sisowath Kossamak, as Malaysia’s official residence in Phnom Penh. He received Prime Minister Datuk Seri (now Tun) Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Tun Dr. Siti Hasmah who were on an official visit on the very day of the Cambodian New Year in 1994 — indeed an unprecedented and rare gesture in diplomatic history.
And at the end of my six-year tour of duty, I was honoured by a three-hour luncheon with their Majesties in the gilded Royal Palace, during which the King reflected on his life and times.
In October 2004, citing old age and health problems, Sihanouk, for the second time, abdicated the throne and placed his bachelor son, Paris-based ballet dancer Prince Norodom Sihamoni, on the throne. Cambodia has indeed bounced back from hell. Cambodians have nurtured a democratic route and a market-oriented economy.
Malaysians send their condolences to His Majesty King Norodom Sihamoni, the former Queen Monineath Sihanouk and the people of Cambodia.
*Dato Deva M. Ridzam was Ambassador to the Kingdom of Cambodia from 1990-1996 . It was during the most difficult period in the Kingdom’s modern history.