Cambodia’s revered former king dies at 89

Posted on October 15, 2012 by


I was woken up today at around 6am in the morning by calls from two editors at Agence France Presse and the Associated Presse. A moment later, I noticed that I received two text messages from two of my former classmates, Sorthy and Ritthy who ended their messages in the same way “True?”. “What’s true?” I wondered. Then, I reread the messages.

I don’t know how to put into words, but all my senses were awake as soon as I reread. King Father passed away at the age of 89 at a hospital in Beijing early this morning. Just another 16 days would be his 90th birthday.

Whereas, Facebook and Twitter in Cambodia have been loaded with many messages and old and young pictures of him. Cambodian Facebookers expressed condolences and grief over his passing away. Words ranging from “Cambodia’s hero, patriot, influential figure, most revered king, beloved king” were seen from one message to another.

However, some have mixed or ambivalent views and feelings over the news shown in their FB status updates, but what I can certainly find in common among all those messages is that they all love the late king who had lived in and experienced the turbulent history of Cambodia. Born on Oct 31, 1922, the king had lived through the rule of the French, the Sangkum Reastre Niyum regime, Lon Nol regime (when he was ousted), Khmer Rouge regime (when he worked along a bit in the beginning but was later put under house arrest), and the post-Khmer Rouge periods including the Vietnamese-installed regime, the UNTAC-assisted regime, another political standoff resolved by having “two prime ministers” and later a one-premier country.

Some of the messages are:

My view about him is, he was a flawed man and a very selfish man at time, but for all he had done, in his mind, he thought he was helping his country, I believe he was a true patriot who has to face the challenge of overcoming the cold war between world powers and overcoming the resentment of the Western power after being ruled by one for 90 years.

Cambodian living in the US , Facebook

I have ambivalent feelings for him generally, but on this occasion, may His Majesty Former King Norodom Sihanouk – supposedly the last of the reigning Angkorean God-Kings, rest in peace. My condolences to the Khmer Royal Family and the Khmer nation.

Cambodian journalist in DC, Facebook

It is with tears and deep sorrow that I mourn for Our King Father HIS Royal Highness NORODOM SIHANOUK. I am deeply affected by the loss and sad for not being in Cambodia to be closer to The King who has written Cambodia’s history, but also the music I have sung throughout all my childhood. HE was Our Grandfather, a role model and a leader, loving and caring for his subjects. I will be mourning in HIS loving memory.

Bosba Panh, a young Soprano singer, Facebook

There are also very few of those who called themselves “very lucky” to have touched and shaken hands with late King Father in the past. Pictures of themselves taken with late King Father were also released on their Facebook pages, too.

Very young late King Father
Source: unknown

Nate Thayer, the journalist who interviewed Pol Pot, summarized his thoughts about the late king on his Facebook:

King Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia October 31, 1922-October 14, 2012
The most constant name in politics in Southeast Asia for more than half a century has been King Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia. He has played the roles of divine king, politician, communist front man and constitutional monarch. No other figure has matched him in longevity, popularity, political acumen on the international stage, and sheer ability to play the dirty game of politics and survive. Throughout his life he has survived numerous wars, he has been overthrown, he has been sentenced to death, he has been a nominal guerilla, Prince, King, dictator, a prisoner in his own country and has symbolized an ancient, traditional, Cambodia, a bloody communist slave state, monarchy, and democracy. He holds the world record for politicians with the most numerous positions in government and father figure to the only southeast Asian monarchy to have been restored after falling in the communist takeover after World War II and deposed again by his erstwhile allies, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. The life story of Norodom Sihanouk is one of being admired, condemned, unique and always controversial. It is arguable that Cambodia would not exist as a nation without his contribution.

It was announced that Prime Minister Hun Sen and current King Norodom Sihamouni are travelling to Biejing today to bring back the body of late King Father to Cambodia.

Slow reaction

Besides all the condolence messages, Cambodian Facebookers complained that the Cambodian government reacted slowly to the shocking news, and that the people of Cambodian have the rights to know how the royal funeral will be hosted or organized. The slow reaction, I guess, has caused Cambodians to take to the Internet especially Facebook to express their mourning for King Norodom Sihanouk.

The reaction might be very slow because perhaps it is very unexpected. Also, today is the festival of the dead when the ghosts of the ancestors walk the earth and wait for offerings from their children and grandchildren, so many people including some government officials have to return to their hometown.

A few local television stations like TVK started to broadcast some video footage of the previous times and asked TV hosts and hostesses to adorn themselves with white shirts and shawls, and if male, a black suit over the white shirt. The presiden of TVK wrote on Facebook that the body of late King Father sent from Beijing, China will be accompanied and broadcast by journalists coming from many countries. A Facebooker also mentioned that it might be very difficult for the Ministry of Cults and Religion to prepare for something very unexpected and high profile like the royal passing away of one of the most influential figures.

The future ahead

You can read stories (links) written by big media companies like BBC NewsAFPAPNew York TimesCNNSydney Morning Herald expected to go frenzy covering the story within the next few weeks or so.

My personal note about late King Father is that he was a very influential but also extremely controversial figure and leader Cambodians have ever had of all times. There are so many stories to be discovered and many learned about him. What made him decide to do what he had done? Called “political chameleon” in an article by the Sydney Morning Herald with a long life and twisting role in Cambodian politics for years, he sometimes admitted during interviews with journalists that human beings make mistakes, and so did he.

Will the passing away of King Sihanouk impact the politics in Cambodia? What would Cambodia be like after his presence was gone? When he was still in the country, he opened doors to all political members, either from the ruling party or any opposition party to come and discuss Cambodian politics with him. He also helped free some political dissidents, but on another note, he also imprisoned and even executed some opponents when he ruled Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge regime.

“I am Sihanouk,” he once said, “and all Cambodians are my children.”

King Sihanouk

“Their great misfortune is that they always have terrible leaders who make them suffer. I am not sure that I was much better myself, but perhaps I was the least bad.”

King Norodom Sihanouk

‎”I have always been dedicated to my homeland. I try to give happiness, some prosperity, and education to my people. I want my country to be independent, always independent. I have to defend my convictions as a patriot and as a national leader. I have done my best, but as a human being I cannot be perfect, nobody is perfect.”

– King Norodom Sihanouk (An interview with David Ablin and Marlowe Hood- The Lesser Evil)

I am feeling strangely sad after I’ve watched this video “Goodbye Cambodia” (posted below) sung by late King Father, especially thinking of how my grandparents whom I believed were stauch believers of King Sihanouk, would react if they had heard of this. He had written pretty much of the modern history of Cambodia, and as a Cambodian, I hope to see it end with clarity with all due respect.

Goodbye Cambodia. I’d like to bid Goodbye to you with sadness. Every day, my “heart” longs to be connected with you. In the past, we have lived together, and shared good and bad times together. Now, whatever will happen, I promise that I’ll always be with and loyal to you. Though far from you, I’m never tired of you. I have undying love for you because you are my motherland/homeland. I want to serve and defend you till I die, and serve you with all my heart, and live with you till death.

Oh Cambodia. I’d like to say Goodbye to you.

Posted in: Cambodia