Saturday, October 27, 2012

Norodom Sihanouk - A Rock Star King

Bruce Ryder
You read Philip Gourevitch's piece on Cambodia's King Norodom Sihanouk in The New Yorker 

And you just know that Mr Gourevitch doesn't know who he is talking about.

It is obvious he has never met King Sihanouk.

In person.

Cos Gourevitch is a bright person.

And had he met Sihanouk we'd know about it.

Cos Sihanouk tends to make an impression on people.

This is no boasty, braggy, access thing.

It's just because Sihanouk was a pretty unique act.

Just look at all the profiles:

The boy-king, pampered, mercurial, playboy, erratic, Oriental , artistic and all the saffron robed exotica.

Everyone struggling to deal with the fact, to articulate in some way, that Sihanouk was the real deal.

Cos Sihanouk was the real deal.

"The Fantasy of King Sihanouk."

That's what the New Yorker says.

And that is actually what Gourevitch seems totally ignorant of or oblivious to.




Sihanouk had no arms or money.

He didn't rape his people.

He wasn't a kelptocrat.

He worked for his supper.

A scam artist maybe.

But an artist.

He hustled on behalf of Cambodia.

Not always perfectly.

But let's take the worst of what Gourevitch throws at him:

Distorting quite a few facts along the way, the big accusation is that Sihanouk is largely responsible for the Khmer Rouge's genocidal rule.

But had he checked, Gourevitch would have easily seen that history is already robbing him of the potency of that polemic.

Julio Jeldres, Sihanouk's biographer, tells us of Sihanouk's expressing his concerns about the Khmer Rouge to Chou Enlai in 73.*

Sihanouk was seeking support to neuter them.

But Chou Enlai had the Gang of Four to worry about.

And the Yanks were not listening.

The Yanks!

The New Yorker piece is written as if the Americans played no role.

There is no sense that the post Killing Fields Khmer Rouge occupied the UN seat down the road.

And no sense of the pressure that was put on Sihanouk to deal with them.


Sihanouk is a lesson in a man who dealt with pressure.

He had a lot thrown at him.

Even for one born a God-King

A collision of centuries, superpowers and virulent ideologies.

He dealt with them all.

Mao to Mitterand, Tito to Nehru, Ceaucescu to Ho Chi Minh, Nixon to de Gaulle.


With Cambodia's well being as his aim, all Sihanouk had at his diplomatic disposal was spectacle.

The Fantasy of King Sihanouk.

Pure Fantasy.

Think Jagger at Altamont singing Sympathy For The Devil.

Then think amateur hour.

Cos that's what it was compared to this 89 year king's never-ending tour.

And despite being born to absolutism.

And the country's history of it.

And the region's propensity for it.

Sihanouk had a  appreciation of the artifice of what we now call human rights.

Here's a senior Red Cross Official who had dealings with him.

With the Khmer Rouge's Ieng Thirith.

And with Hun Sen.

"The only one who has listened and then delivered in terms of Geneva Conventions and all that jazz, was him," the Red Cross official said, speaking of Sihanouk.

"With him we did at least release all political prisoners that were (known to be...) in jail when the SNC took over," he added, referring to the Supreme National Council, the reconciliation grouping of Cambodia's warring factions pending the outcome of UN brokered elections.

And yet Gourevitch laughs at Sihanouk's belief that history had no place for dishonesty and lies.

"It seems impossible that Sihanouk really believed that, " Gourevitch wrote at the end of his New Yorker piece.

But it's entirely possible.

Cos Sihanouk knows history will be kind to him.

He'll get kudos for the hours telling the peasants what Mao or Tito had just said to him.

Way out there.

Where he was only thing that came from the sky that didn't bring death.

A one man shock and awe band.

Helicopter largesse in a water buffalo world.

Norodom Sihanouk.

Samdech Euv.


You were.


Rock star.

Catch King Sihanouk and all the other dramatic, mischievous and militant pieces of verbal and visual art in the critically acclaimed collection of digidelic delight 'I Love The Internet' here:


  1. *Here's Sihanouk's biographer Julio Jeldres on Sihanouk's 73 overture to Chou Enlai about curbing the Khmer Rouge.

    I think I may not have explained myself well during the TV interview. What Zhou Enlai was proposing to the USA was not a complete dropping of the Khmer Rouge but a coalition led by Samdech Sihanouk, some moderate elements of the so-called Khmer Republic (Zhou Enlai sent a message personally to Prince Sirik Matak telling him that if he came to Peking to join Sihanouk, he Zhou Enlai will go to Pekin
    g airport to welcome him), royalists and the Khmer Rouge. Some Chinese sources suggest that Zhou Enlai was not sure about the allegiances of the KR and did not want a repetition of the Cultural Revolution in Cambodia but at the same time, he was under challenge by the Gang of Four, specially Mme Mao, and by mid -April 1974 there were reports that he was about to be purged by Mao. It seems that his illness and popularity prevented that from happening but by the time the Americans encouraged by the French (to whom Zhou had asked for help since April 1973) decided to move and talk to Sihanouk it was too late (December 1974). The leader of the Gang of Four, Zhang Chunqiao, who had become close to Ieng Sary, had taken over the running of Cambodian affairs at the foreign ministry and they supported a military victory and not the proposed coalition. Zhang Chunqiao, latter on helped to draft the new Constitution of Democratic Kampuchea.

  2. Kind of happy to get this into print. An 'ode' of all things. Who would have guessed that I would be reduced to writing odes in a vain attempt at getting a crust on the table?


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