The King Father of Cambodia, better known as the country’s former King Norodom Sihanouk, died from a heart attack in Beijing today, sixteen days short of his ninetieth birthday. Throughout his long life Sihanouk held an unusually high number of offices, including King of Cambodia twice (1941-1955 and 1993-2004) and Prime Minister no less than nine times between 1945 and 1960. He was also head of state during the first year of the terrible Khmer Rouge rule.
Born on 31 October 1922, Norodom Sihanouk was the son of Prince Norodom Suramarit (a cousin of King Sisowath Monivong) and Princess Sisowath Kosamak (daughter of King Monivong). Following King Monivong’s death in April 1941, his 18-year-old grandson Sihanouk was chosen as his successor and thus came to preside over the end of French colonial rule and the transition to independence in 1953. (By the time of his death, Sihanouk was one of the few WWII heads of state still alive).
However, on 2 March 1955 King Sihanouk abdicated in favour of his father, thus gaining the freedom to become a politican and being elected Prime Minister. When King Suramarit died in April 1960, Sihanouk chose not to resume the title of King, but rather to act as head of state with the title of Sovereign Prince.
Prince Sihanouk thus found himself navigating, in an increasingly authoritarian manner, through the turmoil caused by the war in neighbouring Vietnam. However, his political course led to the outbreak of civil war in Cambodia in 1967. Three years later Prime Minister Lon Nol persuaded Parliament to depose Sihanouk, who was travelling abroad at the time, as head of state.
Sihanouk sought refuge in China and North Korea, founded the National United front of Kampuchea (FUNK) and allied himself with the Khmer Rouge against Lon Nol. Following the Khmer Rouge’s victory in 1975, Sihanouk became puppet head of state, although real power was in the hands of Pol Pot. A year later Sihanouk was forced out by the Khmer Rouge and returned to North Korea. Thus he was not involved in Pol Pot’s regime’s mass murder of up to a quarter of Cambodia’s population. However, in the turmoil which followed through Vietnamese occupation after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime at the end of 1978, Sihanouk would again join forces with them. He became President of a government in exile in 1982.
Following the end of Vietnamese occupation and the peace agreement signed in Paris in 1991, Sihanouk returned to Cambodia in November of that year. On 24 September 1993 Sihanouk again became head of state, now with the title of King. However, this was a constitutional role without much actual power.
Sihanouk’s second term as king was marked by health trouble and at one stage it was announced that, according to his astrologer, he would not see the end of the year. This proved as wrong as most astrological predictions, but in January 2004 the increasingly frail Sihanouk left his kingdom to settle in Pyongyang. He abdicated formally on 7 October, and a week later one of his many sons, Norodom Sihamoni, was appointed King. Sihanouk himself assumed the title King Father and lived out the rest of his days in Beijing.
King Sihanouk fathered at least fourteen children, of whom five were killed by the Khmer Rouge regime. He is survived by his remaining children and his wife Monique, the Queen Mother.