* Norodom Sihanouk’s wonderful, horrible life

Mao-Peng Zhen-Sihanouk-Liu Shaoqi in 1956--credit US Army

Mao, Peng Zhen, Norodom Sihanouk, Liu Shaoqi in Beijing, 1956

 By Susan Cunningham, Guest Contributor

New Mandala

For more than a half-century, Dr. Milton Osborne was an observer of the wonderful, horrible life of Norodom Sihanouk, whose funeral ceremonies take place in Phnom Penh next week. Sihanouk  died in Beijing in October, 61 years after he assumed the Cambodian throne for the first time as the unlikely selection of the French colonial masters.  

Dr Osborne first met Sihanouk, then prince and prime minister,  when he was a young Australian diplomat posted in Phnom Penh in 1959.  Osborne then earned a PhD in history at Cornell, taught at the Australian National University and overseas universities, and worked for the United Nations along the Thai border during the early years of the Cambodian refugee crisis.

From 1982 to 1993, he returned to government service as Head of the Asia Branch of the Office of National Assessments. He is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney. Dr. Osborne is the author of many articles and ten books about Cambodia, the region and the Mekong River.

They are so well written they can be read with pleasure and benefit by people without advanced degrees in the social sciences.  His newest book is Phnom Penh: A Cultural and Literary History. Published in 1994, Sihanouk: Prince of Light, Prince of Darkness is the definitive biography, though a smart publisher should order a new, updated edition that covers Sihanouk’s second reign as king and his final attempts to influence events in his homeland. 

Back in 1973—before the Khmer Rouge victory in the civil war–Dr. Osborne already made a persuasive case in Politics and Power in Cambodia: The Sihanouk Years  that the prince’s own economic policies and megalomanic personality led to his deposition by coup d’état in 1970.  On Sihanouk’s death, he wrote this obituary for the Lowy Institute.

Q: Was Sihanouk really that charismatic?

MO: Sihanouk was one of the few people I have ever encountered who deserves to be described as charismatic. On an individual basis he radiated charm and for Cambodians in particular he had a striking capacity to enthrall a crowd–for good or ill. Have a look at my account, pp.3-4 of the biography, for an account of the remarkable double act he and Sukarno performed in 1959 and which I was lucky enough to witness. 

But he could also ‘work’ a non-Cambodian crowd. So, at a soirée dansante in the palace which, again, I was lucky to attend, at around 1.30 am, and after the king and queen had left, he beamed at the rest of us and said, ‘Well, their majesties have gone, and I suppose the rest of you can go too now, but I am going to play until dawn and I do hope you will stay.’ And, of course we all did. MORE

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