The longtime, former king of Cambodia has died. Norodom Sihanouk dominated his country's politics through more than half a century of foreign invasion, genocide and civil war. He was 89 years old. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports on the monarch who tried, in vain, to keep his small country out of the Vietnam War; and who often felt himself better suited to art than statecraft.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Former King Sihanouk died of a heart attack in Beijing, where he was receiving medical treatment. He spent many years in exile in the Chinese capital, beginning in 1970. His former information official, Son Soubert, recalls that when politics got rough, Sihanouk would escape into lavish parties, where he would wine, dine and sing for his guests. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: This recollection is from Prince Sisowath Thomico.]

PRINCE SISOWATH THOMICO: He's an artist, lost in politics. His real personality is an artist. He didn't intend to become king of Cambodia. You use the word romantic; yeah, he's a romantic. His approach to women, to wives and to life, you know, is really romantic.


KUHN: Sihanouk directed several movies, including the 1992 film "My Village At Sunset," about a love triangle in a hospital full of landmine victims. Sihanouk also painted, played in a jazz band, and was a big fan of Elvis Presley ballads. Cambodia's French colonial rulers assumed he would make a good puppet king, when they put him on the throne in 1941. Instead, he helped Cambodia win its independence, in 1953.

In the 1960s, Sihanouk tried to balance the big powers, in a futile attempt to keep Cambodia neutral. He tacitly allowed Vietnamese communists to base troops in eastern Cambodia. He also tacitly allowed the U.S. to covertly bomb those bases, if there were no Cambodians in the area. Sihanouk's biographer, and former secretary, Julio Jeldres remembers.

JULIO JELDRES: If the Americans had good information that the Viet Cong had established themselves there, he would close his eyes if the Americans did something against the Viet Cong. But that did not mean that the Americans could send the B-52s, and just bombard the country wherever they wanted.

KUHN: Sihanouk protested when the bombings did kill Cambodian civilians, Jeldres says, but to no avail. In 1970, Sihanouk's trusted supporter Marshal Lon Nol ousted him in a coup d'etat. Sihanouk alleged that the CIA was behind the plot. Sihanouk then allied himself with the communist Khmer Rouge movement, to fight Lon Nol. Opposition lawmaker Son Chhay says that Sihanouk bears some responsibility for the genocide under the Khmer Rouge's rule from 1975 to 1979, during which they wiped out up to a quarter of Cambodia's population.

SON CHHAY: Without Sihanouk - decision to join the Communist movement, the Khmer Rouge would not be able to take power in this country. And we would not have to lose so many human lives. So he had to take some responsibility. You cannot ignore that fact.

KUHN: Julio Jeldres disagrees. He says that what really helped the Khmer Rouge, was U.S. intervention.

JELDRES: If the United State - have not encouraged and supported the coup in 1970, the Khmer Rouge would not have grown from what they were. They were just a miniscule group of subversives.

KUHN: Sihanouk spent most of the Khmer Rouge era as a prisoner in his own palace. He eventually returned to the throne in 1993, but real power has remained in the hands of the current prime minister, Hun Sen. Former assistant and royal family member Prince Sisowath Thomico says that Sihanouk's shifting alliances were not the sign of a character flaw, but merely a survival tactic. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: This quote is from Son Soubert, a former information official.]

SON SOUBERT: One thing they usually accuse him of, it's - he is a mercurial prince. But to defend Cambodia, you have to react to the international events. We are a small country. We have to turn with the wind.

KUHN: Sihanouk abdicated the throne to his eldest son, Norodom Sihamoni, in 2004. King Sihamoni and Prime Minister Hun Sen will now bring the former king's body back to Cambodia, for a state funeral.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News.



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