War and Hope: The Case for Cambodia
The American edition of Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s second book1 appears just as he has again announced that he is giving up “all political activity” and will not be traveling, as expected, to Singapore, Australia, and other countries.2 This appears to rule out (at least for the time being) a visit to the prince’s compatriots huddled in refugee camps along the border with Thailand, although, at long last, the Bangkok government has said it will admit him.
If the prince really means it this time, his decision could also be the end of serious attempts to organize a full-scale Geneva conference to “neutralize” Cambodia, today, as Sihanouk says, “no more than a shambles”3 after a decade of war and self-destruction. Sihanouk was already disheartened about the prospect of a conference after his visit to Europe and the United States in 1980. Nobody in power seemed to think the idea had any future.
But the prince made similar statements before. To accept his latest abdication as definitive would be naïve. In the “good old days” of princely rule in Cambodia, which enjoyed peace and relative plenty between 1955 and 1965, Sihanouk intermittently recharged his popularity by publicly offering, in pathetic tones, to resign and leave Cambodia to its fate at the hands of Western “imperialists” and communists. Without fall, a “spontaneous” demonstration, usually by the Royal Khmer Socialist Youth, of which he was leader, begged him fervently to stay on and save the nation. A British ambassador in Phnom Penh compared this process to the House of Commons tradition whereby the elected speaker pretends not to want his job and is ceremonially “dragged” to the chair.
In 1956, when I first went there, Phnom Penh lived up to Sihanouk’s official propaganda. It seemed a “haven of peace,” relaxed and amusing for foreigners, tired of the taut, puritanical atmosphere of Ngo dinh Diem’s Saigon. For about ten years Sihanouk really was “the people’s Prince,” as I called him in a book about Indochina written before the martyrdom of South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.4 He was popular with the unlettered peasantry and with the older generation of Cambodians who enjoyed an independence which did not upset their leisurely ways. Doubts and criticism came mainly from students and westernized younger people who resented, though rarely dared say so, the autocratic reality behind much of Sihanouk’s “direct democracy.” “Buddhist socialism,” the vague ideology of the regime, seemed appropriate for a people whose tolerance was founded in centuries of passivity, interrupted occasionally by outbreaks of suicidal violence. 5
In the late Sixties this social harmony was broken. Sihanouk, who held onto power for so long, cannot be exonerated from all responsibility for the corruption which grew up in Phnom Penh and for the repressive behavior of the then royal army toward incipient peasant revolt. The first beatings of dissident Cambodians to death with sticks took place in 1967 when pro-government zealots used this method, later perfected by the Khmer Rouge, “to…
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