Norodum Sihanouk the former king of Cambodia died aged 89 yesterday at a hospital in Beijing.
King Sihanouk lived through tremendous changes in his lifetime. He became king in 1941 because the French colonial rulers thought as an 18-year-old he would be easier to manipulate than his father. He helped bring about Cambodian independence without bloodshed in 1953.
During the Vietnam War, Sihanouk tried to keep Cambodia neutral between the clashing Americans and Communists. The Americans under the orders of President Nixon and Henry Kissenger, without the approval of Congress, used the presence of Viet Cong bases in eastern Cambodia as an excuse to drastically carpet bomb the area leading to 150,000 to 600,000 civilian deaths and food shortages.
In 1970 a US-backed coup installed Lon Nol as Cambodia’s leader, forcing Sihanouk into exile in China. He then formed an alliance with the Khmer Rouge guerillas led by Pol Pot. During the years of the Khmer Rouge genocide when 1.7 million people died, Sihanouk was kept prisoner in his palace. Among those who died were five (out of 14) of Sihanouk’s children and at least 15 grandchildren.
When Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1979 Sihanouk fled to exile in China again, where he stayed until the Vietnamese withdrew in 1990. He was crowded king again in 1993.
The king abdicated in 2004 due to ill-health, handing the crown to his son Norodom Sihamoni, Cambodia’s ambassador for UNESCO who taught ballet dancing in France from 1981 to 2001.
The current king, now aged 59, has never married. His father said that he ‘loves women as his sisters’. In a piece about gay life in Camobodia journalist Patrick Winn reported last year: ‘Gay Cambodians note with a wink that the king is a style-conscious bachelor and former ballet instructor in Paris’.
In 2004 Sihanouk, who was married to five or six women, spoke out in favour of same-sex marriage in Cambodia after seeing gay marriages in San Francisco on TV. ‘I am not gay, but I respect the rights of gays and lesbians,’ he said. ‘It’s not their fault if God makes them born that way.’
Following the news of his death last night UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon acknowledged Sihanouk’s ‘long dedication to his country and his legacy as a unifying national leader who is revered by Cambodians and respected internationally’.