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1991-2004 - Sihanouk Returns

King Norodom SihanoukIn the years since Norodom Sihanouk regained the throne in 1993, the King's political influence waned and more than once he threatened to abdicate during political crises. The aging King was on an extended stay in China for medical treatment when he announced his abdication. Prince Norodom Sihamoni, most recently Cambodia's ambassador to the United Nations education and cultural agency, was chosen to succeed his father in 2004.

Sihanouk was diagnosed with cancer in 1993 and travelled every three to six months to Beijing for treatment. Royal adviser Prince Sisowath Thomico has said that Sihanouk's cancer was not serious. Doctors advised Sihanouk to rest and reduce stress by declining visitation, letters and messages, the prince said.

In an October 2011 speech, the king said he had come back to Cambodia to stay, but a royal adviser said his medical condition made it impossible to keep that promise. Norodom Sihanouk, who was 90, suffered from cancer, diabetes and hypertension and had made frequently, prolonged trips to China since abdicating the throne in 2004. In January 2012, the former monarch, a once powerful and revered figure to most Cambodians, issued an order that his body be cremated after his death. In a Jan. 6 missive, the former king said the ashes of my bones to be clean and kept in an urn inside the Royal Palace. However, Chea Kean, vice president of the National and International Ceremony Organizing Committee, said he had no preparations yet for a state funeral or other ceremony.

On the bright side, he was a tremendously charismatic, charming, shrewd, and talented person. In the 1960s he improved the standard of living of his people, and for all his erratic behavior, he brought a degree of political stability to Cambodia which certainly compared favorably to anything to be found in Laos, Vietnam or even Thailand. However, on the dark side, he was also very unpredictable and mercurial, and not very committed to moral or democratic principles. By birth, he was an autocrat and behaved like one. Judging from his preferred places of residence outside Cambodia (Beijing and Pyongyang) and the leaders he admired and befriended with (Kim II Sung, Mao Tse Tung, Ceaucescu, Hodja, Sukarno, to mention only the obvious ones), he was no friend of democracy.

No great insight is required to conclude that Sihanouk's failings were close%y related to his mental health. Certain of his prejudices, including his dislike of the United States, can be explained in terms of some of his experiences. Others, such as his disproportionate fears of some opponents, his sensitivity to any kind of criticism, the frequent morbid references in his speeches, and the excessive vituperation of his critics, appeared rooted in Sihanouk's personality.

To the favorably disposed, he was a temperamental but essentially shrewd ruler, who gained and preserved his country's independence in the face of trenendous obstacles. To his detractors, he was a petty leftist tyrant, mad as a March hare, whose limited achievements were a by-product of Communist preoccupation elsewhere in Asia.

To come up with the "true" Sihaxaouk it is not necessary to reject either of these views but it is necessary to combine them. For all his popularity at home, there was ample evidence that his judgment, in certain areas, was badly impaired. He did not appear out of touch with reality so much as a victim of his emotions. The mystique surrounding Sihanouk, which contributed so greatly to his popularity in the countryside, appeared to have bred a sycophancy among his advisors which precludes any effective check on his actions.

He was of the revolutionary breed, and his effectiveness as a soap box orator was matched by his impatience with more prosaic matters of governmental administration. He had a deep contempt for his critics and had no desire -- on both personal and patriotic grounds -- to surrender the instruments of political power. He brooded over his country's weakness and over threats, real and imagined, to his own position. For all his intelligence, he continued to place a child-like faith in the royal astrologers whose participation in the royal decision-making process was little changed from the days of the Khmer empire.

Sihanouk was one of the most controversial figures in Southeast Asia's turbulent, and often tragic, postwar history. Admirers viewed him as one of the country's great patriots, whose insistence on strict neutrality kept Cambodia out of the maelstrom of war and out of the revolution in neighboring Vietnam for more than fifteen years before he was betrayed by his close associate, Lon Nol. Critics attacked him for his vanity, eccentricities, and intolerance of any political views different from his own.

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