History: Cambodia’s King Sihanouk and Zhou Enlai

February 11, 2017

Cambodia: King Sihanouk and Zhou Enlai

Note: All students of Cambodian History and Foreign Policy should read Charisma and Leadership–The Human Side of Great Leaders of the 20th Century by Prince Norodom Sihanouk with Dr. Bernard Krisher (Phnom Penh: The Cambodia Daily, 1990). Why? Leadership matters in today’s world, especially with the election on November 8, 2016 and the  inauguration of Donald J. Trump as the 45th President of the United States on January 20, 2017.

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His Majesty  King Norodom Sihanouk’s Impressions on Zhou Enlai appear on pp.45-66.  The Intellectual Cambodian Monarch Samdech Euv (Khmer: សម្តេចឪ)’s My War with The C.I.A (Baltimore:Penguin Book,1973) with Wilfred Burchett, and William Shawcross, Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon, and the Destruction of Cambodia (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979) which deal with Cambodia-US Relations should are also on my recommended read list.–Din Merican
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Chairman Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai asked Deng Xiaoping and Ye Jianying to see Sihanouk and his family members off. Picture taken on September 9, 1975, Sihanouk (middle), his wife (left) and Deng Xiaoping traveled in a motorcade.

20 years friendship: Sihanouk and Zhou Enlai


Cambodia’s Samdech Euv (King-Father) Norodom Sihanouk’s friendship with China began with his first encounter with the then Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, in 1955 at the Bandung Conference which was hosted by President Ahmed Sukarno of Indonesia. Their friendship lasted for more than two decades until Zhou Enlai’s death in 1976.

Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai met Norodom Sihanouk for the first time at the Bandung Conference on April  18, 1955.

In the morning, when most of the delegation was outside the venue waiting for the host, Indonesia’s first President  Ahmed Sukarno, Zhou Enlai met the 33-year-old Sihanouk, the then Cambodian Prime Minister.

Cheng Yuangong, Zhou Enlai’s FMR guard, said, “Premier Zhou was talking to other people when he found that Norodom Sihanouk was some seven meters away. Premier Zhou stepped up and began talking to him. Sihanouk was very touched by the Chinese Premier’s friendly move.”

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During the six-day conference, Zhou Enlai made a statement, applauding Cambodia’s fight for independence led by Norodom Sihanouk. He said China fully respected Cambodia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

During the conference, Zhou Enlai also gave a banquet for the Cambodian delegation. In Norodom Sihanouk’s memoirs, he called it an unforgettable invitation. Zhou Enlai’s welcome made him feel part of a brotherhood.

Ten months after the Bandung Conference, Norodom Sihanouk visited China for the first time. One month later, Zhou Enlai was invited to Cambodia. It was very rare in world diplomatic history for two countries to welcome delegations without establishing diplomatic ties.

In 1958, China and Cambodia formally established ambassador-level diplomatic relations. In 1970, Norodom Sihanouk was forced into exile in China when Lon Nol clique staged a coup d’ etat . China continued to support him, and he lived in Beijing for the next five years.

Zhou Enlai would never miss Sihanouk or his wife’s birthday unless he was on a visit abroad. In 1975, Sihanouk decided to return to Cambodia when the Lon Nol government was overthrown.

At that time, suffering from cancer, Zhou Enlai weighed just 30 kilograms. But he still insisted on making detailed arrangements for Sihanouk. The two old friends said their final goodbyes on August the 26th, 1975. 6 months later, Zhou Enlai died in Beijing. But Sihanouk’s friendship with China never wavered.

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6 thoughts on “History: Cambodia’s King Sihanouk and Zhou Enlai

  1. In his book on Charisma and Leadership, His Majesty Samdech Euv Norodom Sihanouk said this of Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai: “He was one of the two most remarkable men I ever had the privilege of knowing (the other was de Gaulle). He could have been a leader of any nation and served it with distinction…he never visibly aspired to challenge or succeed to the top position (p.45)”. I recall that it was exactly what His Majesty said to me at the luncheon he gave to the departing Malaysian Ambassador Dato Deva Ridzam on October,26, 1996 when I asked His Majesty about Zhou Enlai. Samdech Euv also told me that Zhou protected him and his family from being killed by Pol Pot.–Din Merican

  2. From everything I read about Zhou Enlai, he was a remarkable man respected and admired by friends and foes alike. I remember watching TV news tens of thousands of people all over China knelt down in the streets crying upon hearing of his death.

    King Norodom Shihanouk was quoted by Oriana Fallaci (in June 1973) to have said: “He’s the truest friend I’ve ever had. What’s more, he’s an exquisite man, full of kindness and sophistication, the most aristocratic aristocrat one can meet. To those who can’t understand how I, a non-communist, could be friends with Zhou Enlai, I say: ‘But he’s a prince more princely than I am!'”
    (Intervista con la Storia [sixth edition, 2011], page 109.)

    In his book “On China” (published 2011) Henry Kissinger said: “Mao dominated any gathering; Zhou suffused it. Mao’s passion strove to overwhelm opposition; Zhou’s intellect would seek to persuade or outmaneuver it. Mao was sardonic; Zhou penetrating. Mao thought of himself as a philosopher; Zhou saw his role as an administrator or a negotiator. Mao was eager to accelerate history; Zhou was content to exploit its currents.” Kissinger’s high regard for the junzi (君子, often translated as “gentleman” or “superior person” ) Zhou Enlai — “in some sixty years of public life, I have encountered no more compelling figure” — is a fraternal admiration.

    Dag Hammarskjold, in a letter to a friend, as quoted in Hammarskjold (1972) by Brian Urquhart: “It is a little bit humiliating when I have to say that Chou En-lai to me appears as the most superior brain I have so far met in the field of foreign politics… so much more dangerous than you imagine because he is so much better a man than you have ever admitted.”

    When one could get the respect and admiration from friends and foes alike, he/she had, indeed, lived a full and successful life. After 41 years of his death, Zhou Enlai is still remembered as one of China’s most respected and best loved leaders, renowned for his brilliant diplomacy, as well as his personal humility and simple life-style.

  3. Those were the days when national leaders, (whether the good, the bad, the scoundrel, depending on who you asked), made history.

    These days, the good continue to make history, the bad repeats history and the scoundrel re-writes history.

  4. If you want know more of the man, read Han Suyin’s

    Eldest Son: Zhou Enlai and the Making of Modern China, 1898-1976.

    She was completely in awe of him.

    • HanSuyin’s book ought to be read as part of the official must-read literature for Malaysia’s secondary students. Alas, I guess, perhaps for another day. Left-vs-right. My mom was not sure why she didn’t get to talk much to her uncle when she grew up in Hong Kong. With the help of baidu, we have found in recent years a small description of her uncle being one of the students who discuss about socialism in France with Zhou EnLai, and being one of the first to share the story of socialism and land reform in Guangdong province. I guess that explained why my mom was not brought up knowing anything about her uncle living in the same city.

      I would assume Cambodia has a lot more stories of such left vs right. I pray Dean Din’s students find the courage to transcend a painful past with a generous loving heart. In the case of HanSuYin, her marriage failed. But, her writings remains a classic that crosses all boundaries of class, and race. Damn.. another pendatang Hakka.

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