* 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

* Phase-out of chemicals wins backing at Bangkok meet

By Susan Cunningham
The Nation

Denmark won allies last week in its drive to accelerate the phase-out of two chemicals that destroy the ozone layer, hydrochloro-fluorocarbons (HCFCs) and the pesticide methyl bromide.

Twenty-two nations, including the entire European Union, pledged here to phase out their production and consumption of HCFCs by the year 2015, 15 years ahead of the present schedule. They had convened for the annual meeting of 123 signatories to the Montreal Protocol. The 22 nations also promised to limit their HCFC use “to absolutely necessary applications” in the run-up to 2015.

HCFCs were introduced as substitutes for the more destructive chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which are used as refrigerants and in the manufacture of insulating foams. Beginning in 1987, CFCs were the original target of international efforts–codified under various Montreal Protocol agreements–to protect the atmospheric ozone layer.

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* A History of Thailand

A History of Thailand
By Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit
Cambridge University Press, 2005, 320 pages
$60.00 (hardcover), $19.99 (paper)
Reviewed by Susan J. Cunningham


Be wary of promises on book jackets: A History of Thailand  by Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit is not the first new history of Thailand in English in 20 years. First of all, although there has been a muang thai in the Chao Phraya River basin since at least the 16th century, the state’s first 300 years are compressed into two brief chapters. By chapter 3, we’re already embedded in the 20th century and the much-studied “modernization” era of King Chulalongkorn. Even so, the book doesn’t quite qualify as a history of Thailand in the 20th century because some of the most significant events of the last three decades barely rate a mention.


This is disappointing given the authors’ track record. Ms. Pasuk is a political economist at Chulalongkorn University. Her husband taught Asian history at Cambridge University in the 1970’s, then spent most of the next two decades in business in Thailand. Beginning in the 1990’s, they co-authored lively books, such as Thailand’s Boom and Bust (1998) and Thaksin: The Business of Politics in Thailand (2004), that made economic and political trends comprehensible to a wide public.


Instead of a strictly chronological approach, here they attempt to frame the 20th century as a series of contests to define and control the nation-state. The contestants have included royalists, commoner intellectuals, generals, students, communists and agrarian leftists. Yet the character of the struggle has remained between absolutist, centralized rule and an inclusive, egalitarian vision that would allow even peasants to participate in politics and define progress for themselves. The reign of Chulalongkorn, from 1868-1910, is pivotal. As is well known, the clever king fended off the designs of the French and the British by launching massive infrastructure projects, sending his young relatives to study in the West, and acquiescing to demands for geographical borders. Yet Chulalongkorn, like his father, realized it was just as important that the colonialists perceive Siam as a “civilized” nation. That required a unified, formidable heritage that would be respected and feared. Continue reading

* Echoes of Seattle’s undone business resound in UN trade conference

By Susan Cunningham
Earth Times News Network


Bangkok–Dispelling any doubts lingering with the Seattle pepper spray, the chiefs of multilateral agencies meeting here last month stressed their agreement with complaints that had led to the collapse of trade talks last December.


The directors of the World Trade Organization (WTO), International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank and numerous U.N. agencies weren’t referring to the grievances of Western labor unions or environmental organizations that sparked riots and fifteen minutes of media attention in Seattle. Continue reading