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1970-1991 - Sihanouk in Exile

King Norodom Sihanouk Prince Sihanouk's unease grew as the war in Vietnam progressed. Had he been called on to judge the Vietnamese adversaries, he would surely have wished a plague on both their houses. But he was never asked. By Diem's fall in 1963, the Prince had become convinced that Hanoi was the winning horse. In comparison, the South Vietnamese government seemed a faltering nag kept in the race by prods from the United States government. So early the next year, he dispatched a mob of Cambodian students to attack the US Embassy in Phnom Penh. In April 1965 he sent the Cambodian students for another bash at the US Embassy. The Royal Government severed diplomatic relations with the United States in May.

Sihanouk's hatred for the United States was deep-rooted and seemingly implaccable. Over a period of years Sihanouk had come to the conclusion -- unenthusiastically -- that a Communist triumph in Southeast Asia was a foregone conclusion. Sihanouk argued that there are worse fates than that of a Communist satellite, and cited Poland as a nation which had preserved its identity even though absorbed in the bloc. Having seen into the future with such clarity, Sihanouk would be most reluctant to recognize a trend favorable to the West, should one develop.

Sihanouk's rule abruptly ended in 1970 as the tide of communism sweeping through Indochina finally reached Cambodia, with Vietnamese forces encroaching on its borders. Indochina expert Carl Thayer at Australia's Defense Force Academy says Sihanouk's efforts to keep his kingdom neutral during the Vietnam War failed. "Initially he swam with the mainstream in Southeast Asia, which was the movement of neutrality," he notes. "But rapidly, as the Cold War set in, he lost the ability to manipulate and he was overthrown when he was overseas begging Moscow and Beijing to stop their support for it [the Vietnam War]."

While in exile in China, King Sihanouk plotted his return and eventually settled into an alliance with the radical communist group, Khmer Rouge. Sihanouk called a coalition in support for the Khmer Rouge and others while in exile, helping bolster the movement that would take over the country five years later. Sihanouk supported nominal head of the movement Khieu Samphan and the regime when it most needed international support. Historians say this was to be his greatest mistake.

Sihanouk's power rested on the fact that he was the best known figure in Cambodia, that he had supporters among the Communists, that his return was acceptable to important groups and individuals in Phnom Penh, and last, but not least, that he had the support of Peking, Hanoi, and Moscow. Sihanouk realized that his only chance of again playing a major political role rested on negotiations.

His problem was that while he was nominally the head of the Khmer Communist movement, he did not in fact control or greatly influence the military or political strategy of the insurgents in the field. As long as the Communists were determined to press ahead with a military effort there was little that Sihanouk could do to dissuade them. As the Khmer Rouge gained control of the country in 1975, King Sihanouk returned to Phnom Penh. But he remained in house detention for most of the regime's genocidal rule, which claimed the lives of more than one million people, including five of the king's 14 children.

He always allied himself with those with strong preference for power, more specifically raw power. During the 1970's and 1980s, he worked very closely with the Khmer Rouge leaders such as Pol Pot, Son Sen, Leng Saiy, and Khieu Samphan and often proclaimed publicly that they were the most patriotic people dedicated and the best equipped to defend Cambodia's sovereignty.

Vietnam ousted the Khmer Rouge in 1979, and Sihanouk again found himself in exile. Again, King Sihanouk allied with the Khmer Rouge against the Vietnamese-installed government. Sihanouk, "father of all Khmers," remained above the fray in hopes of fabricating a national reconciliation. Throughout the UN-sponsored peace process from 1986 onward, Sihanouk had been viewed as the linchpin of a settlement, the only leader capable of managing Cambodia's poisonous politics. Many Cambodians still viewed him as the one leader who might, deus ex machina, impose tranquillity on the fractured Cambcdian society.

Only after the 1991 United Nations peace agreement did King Sihanouk return to Phnom Penh. True, certain of Sihanouk's Craits and actions undermined his credibility as a leader. These included vacillation, contradictory statements, prolonged absences in Beijing and Pyongyang, and pledges to bring the Khmer Rouge into the new Cambodian government regardless of the election outcome. Still, most rural people retained a nostalgia for the past and equated the tranquillity and prosperity of those days to life under Sihanouk. He regained the throne in 1993.

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Page last modified: 02-06-2012 17:25:25 ZULU