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1953-1970 - Sihanouk in Power

King Norodom SihanoukAs prince, head of state and king, Norodom Sihanouk accomplished many things. Sihanouk, who abdicated the throne in 2004, was born Oct. 31, 1922, oversaw independence in 1953, was exiled by a US-backed coup in 1970, held under house arrest by the Khmer Rouge, and finally returned as king. King Norodom Sihanouk was only 19 years old when the French colonial government picked him for the throne in 1941. Despite being a political novice, King Sihanouk transformed the role of a Cambodian monarch from merely ceremonial to immensely powerful and popular.

Political power was largely exercised in by Prince Norodom Sihanouk or, when held by others, usually derived from him. He was Chief of State, a position granting him all rights allowed the King under the Constitution. He was also Supreme Councilor of his party, the People's Socialist Community (Sangkum Reastr Niyum, usually referred to as Sangkum), to which all persons who wish to participate in political life should belong. He was also President of the Council of Ministers, or chief executive, and President of the Royal Khmer Socialist Youth (Jeunesse Socialiste Royale Khmere-JSRK), which organized and led the nation's young people. His strength was further legitimized by his former position as King, a factor which, combined with his paternal rule, made him an object of reverence.

From 1947 through 1955 political parties competed for power in periodic elections, but the situation was altered by the gradual consolidation of power by Prince Sihanouk, first as King and, after 1955, as Supreme Councilor of the Sangkum. He overwhelmed his opponents, obtained for his adherents the primary political offices and concurrently won the reverence and allegiance of the majority of citizens.

Such exclusive political control found its origins in the country's long history of absolute monarchy, which was only slightly altered by short periods of foreign domination. The contemporary pattern of periodic elections and representative government was supported by a majority of the citizens.

David Chandler, an American expert on Cambodia said Sihanouk was a hard-working and patriotic leader, but he was also an authoritarian. "He was a dictator certainly, but a very popular dictator among the ordinary people," he says. "The opposition couldn't get itself organized, political parties were smashed." Sihanouk endeared himself to the Cambodian people by reaching out to his subjects in a way no other monarch did. At times, he indulged in his extravagant artistic hobbies such as filmmaking, music and publishing.

One critic, Michael Vickery, asserts that beneath the neutralist rhetoric Sihanouk presided over a regime that was oppressively reactionary and, in some instances, as violent in its suppression of political opposition as the Khmer Rouge. According to Vickery, the royal armed forces under Lon Nol slaughtered women and children in pro-Khmer Issarak regions of Batdambang in 1954 using methods that were later to become routine under Pol Pot.

Another critical observer, Milton E. Osborne, writing as an Australian expatriate in Phnom Penh during the late 1960s, describes the Sihanouk years in terms of unbridled greed and corruption, of a foreign policy inspired more by opportunism than by the desire to preserve national independence, of an economy and a political system that were rapidly coming apart, and of the prince's obsession with making outrageously mediocre films -- one of which starred himself and his wife, Princess Monique.

Sihanouk was all of these things -- patriot, neutralist, embodiment of the nation's destiny, eccentric, rigid defender of the status quo, and promoter of the worst sort of patron-client politics. He believed that he single-handedly had won Cambodia's independence from the French. The contributions of other nationalists, such as Son Ngoc Thanh and the Viet Minh, were conveniently forgotten. Sihanouk also believed he had the right to run the state in a manner not very different from that of the ancient Khmer kings -- that is, as an extension of his household.

Shortly after winning independence from France in 1953, the king abdicated the throne in favor of his father and chose a more hands-on political role as Cambodia's head of state. For the most of the 1950s and 1960s, Sihanouk ruled unopposed. His personal popularity continued at a level difficult for Westerners to comprehend, yet the Prince courted his followers like a dark-horse candidate for county clerk.

Sihanouk was neither psychologically nor physically distant from the people; he identifies himself as one of them and told them that he was the leader whom they have chosen. The relationship was often likened to that of father and children; Prince Sihanouk was fondly called Samdech Euv (Venerable Father), and he termed all Khmer as "his children." He repeatedly told the people that he worked only for their benefit and that Cambodia was their nation, belonging to all of them. This approach seemed to have succeeded in winning the loyalty of the great majority of the Khmer, and it made them aware of belonging to a nation.

Unlike the ancient "god-kings," however, he established genuine rapport with ordinary Cambodians. He made frequent, often impromptu, trips throughout the country, visiting isolated villages, chatting with peasants, receiving petitions, passing out gifts, and scolding officials for mismanagement. Prince Sihanouk informed the public of his government's policies and objectives in two ways. The National Congress convened semiannually in the capital, Phnom Penh; any citizen may attend, listen to the discussions and submit questions. The Prince is an ardent speechmaker and often travelled throughout the country, missing no opportunity to tell the population about the policies of the government.

According to British author and journalist William Shawcross, Sihanouk was able to create a "unique brand of personal populism." To ordinary Cambodians, his eccentricities, volatility, short temper, sexual escapades, and artistic flights of fancy were an expression of royal charisma rather than an occasion for scandal. Sihanouk's delight in making life difficult for foreign diplomats and journalists, moreover, amused his subjects. Ultimately, the eccentric humanity of Sihanouk was to contrast poignantly with the random brutality of his Khmer Rouge successors.

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