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Cambodia, C’est Moi

War and Hope: The Case for Cambodia

by Prince Norodom Sihanouk, translated by Mary Feeney
Pantheon Books, 166 pp., $10.95

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 save ammunition.”

But until things started to go wrong after 1965, Sihanouk was one of the most brilliant national leaders of the Third World. He used his extraordinary intuition to steer Cambodia clear of the danger of war. His ambiguities irritated the US and the West in general. But in 1961, as the crisis grew in Laos, Western diplomats turned increasingly to him, almost begging him to provide a magic solution. He acted from the strength of his own successful type of neutrality. That the Laos settlement, signed in Geneva in 1962, lasted so short a time was not his fault. He had warned the West that after the fiasco of post-Geneva 1954 policies in Laos, it was too late for the Kingdom of a Million Elephants to become neutral.

Zhou En-lai first visited Cambodia a year after he met and liked Sihanouk at the 1955 Bandung “Summit” of Asian and African Peoples. A second visit to Phnom Penh by Zhou En-lai in 1960 confirmed this historic friendship which had such far-reaching consequences for Sihanouk and his country. The growth of Sino-Cambodian friendship angered the State Department, the keystone of whose Asian policy in the 1950s was unmitigated hostility to Peking. Much has been written about Robert McClintock, the American ambassador to Cambodia, whose dislike of Sihanouk hardly improved relations. Western embassies in Phnom Penh at the time were full of frantic political counselors. One Briton said that Sihanouk’s recognition of China meant that Southeast Asia had “gone”: Cambodia’s geographical position meant that South Vietnam had been “turned,” Thailand and Malaya were directly threatened, and even Western shipping and air traffic to Hong Kong and Japan jeopardized. This dire prediction was made seven years before President Kennedy sent American combat troops to Vietnam. It illustrates the nervous mood of that time.

The US did have a few quietly sensible diplomats in Phnom Penh. Ambassador Carl Strom, for example, recommended more understanding of Sihanouk’s neutrality and was rebuked, not by Washington, but by the US ambassador in Saigon, who accused him of suffering from “an acute attack of localitis.” Attempts to assuage Sihanouk’s anti-American outbursts were sometimes embarrassing. Hoping to please him, an American ladies’ choir gave a recital one July fourth at which they soulfully sang the Cambodian national anthem, “Nokoreach.” Sihanouk was not touched. He was particularly angry that week about an article in Time magazine.

Although Sihanouk exploded with rage when unfavorable comment appeared on him in The New York Times and other major papers, he also reveled in it. Drafting replies and translating Sihanouk’s fulminations from the French took up much of the time of the prince’s informal “secretariat.” He was always more interested in journalists who criticized him than in those who wrote favorably. There was never any systematic censorship. He would just keep reporters out of Cambodia if they had “gone too far.” Chau Seng, an information minister, later tortured and killed under Pol Pot, once blocked a service message from a correspondent to Time because its phrasing was considered insulting.

The prince’s attitude to the press has been complex. Just as he is a good saxophonist and a composer of rather shmaltzy light music (some, like his “Suite Cambodgienne,” published in the US), he is himself a journalist at heart. His French educational background has meant that he has suffered, like so many French journalists, from “editorialism,” tending to spurn the lowly tasks of the reporter in favor of “think pieces.” He is his country’s only columnist. War and Hope gives many opinions but lacks the narrative element which would have made it so much more interesting as a unique record of his country’s sufferings.

From 1956 until the Lon Nol coup, in 1970, Sihanouk employed an able Frenchman as speech-writer and confidant: Charles Meyer, a former member of the French geographical service in Indochina. To call Meyer “adviser,” “counselor,” or “aide,” as some have done, does not really convey the unique relationship that once existed between the fastidious, often petulant prince and this down-to-earth Parisian intellectual. Toward the end, as the war pressed in ineluctably on the neutral kingdom, it became increasingly difficult for Sihanouk to maneuver out of one awkward situation after another. In some of his public statements at this time he seemed, Meyer now says, to be swinging away from the old neutralist line and to be granting irreconcilable concessions to North Vietnam and the United States.

Today, in Paris, Meyer is disillusioned with what he also regards as Sihanouk’s irresponsibility during the years leading up to the 1970 coup. The increasing amount of time given by the prince to filmmaking shocked the earnest Frenchman whose conviction it was that not only Sihanouck but Cambodia itself would soon pay dearly for such distractions. Meyer’s book Derrière le Sourire Khmer (Behind the Cambodian Smile)6 is said to have displeased Sihanouk who saw it as a kind of betrayal of their former intimacy. Yet Meyer, as would be latter-day Phaulkon,7 a freelance adventurer in the French colonial tradition, was closer to the Cambodian ruler in those days than any other foreigner. His book is certainly the best account of Sihanouk’s career up to 1970 and is also a work of concise erudition of a high order.

Meyer is unsparing of praise for the skill with which Sihanouk disentangled his country from French colonial control and steered clear of involvement with the United States in the post-Geneva period. But he blames Sihanouk outright for the deterioration in the quality of Cambodian government in the late Sixties, and believes that personal vanity and revenge were his strongest motives in siding with the Khmer Rouge, whom he had previously persecuted and of whose bloodthirsty radicalism he was aware.

Today there are Cambodian refugees in Paris and elsewhere who hold Sihanouk responsible for his country’s tragedy. But for most of those who are now bravely trying to salvage something of their country, this is past history. Sihanouk remains, whatever judgment history eventually passes on him, the only Cambodian of any stature and the only one who has the slightest chance, against today’s frightful odds, of presiding over an internationally agreed settlement which could save the Khmer race from the extinction that now threatens it.

For those who believe, or try to believe, in “restoration” of the former king, War and Hope is a necessary book, both as encouragement and as a deterrent to illusion. The title of the French edition, published in 1979, Chroniques de guerre…et d’espoir (Chronicles of War…and Hope)8 had a de Gaulle-like ring. Perhaps Sihanouk thought that he would add this flavor by sometimes referring to himself in the third person singular. The comparison ends there. The old rhetoric persists, but in a sober, sadder tone—inevitably, for while Sihanouk was a privileged survivor of the Khmer Rouge holocaust, his long house arrest in Phnom Penh was cruel confinement to so free a spirit. Gone is the rollicking mood of his interminable speeches during the Sangkum conferences in Phnom Penh. The text is bleak, brief, fundamentally pessimistic. There are touches of the old flippancy, but there is no vivid account of his day-to-day experiences after he chose to stay in Peking and lend his great prestige to the Khmer Rouge.

Considering himself a “serious” writer, Sihanouk probably thought that such an approach would be trivial or irrelevant. Or he may be saving some of these memories for his “retirement.” In denouncing the Khmer Rouge from beginning to end, he provides few concrete details, although he gives us a glimpse of the way children trained themselves, by practicing on dogs, cats, and lizards, to behave with cruelty in killing members of the old society. Sihanouk tells how he watched this take place from his “camp,” as he calls it.

Sihanouk is not here concerned to mourn the deaths and disappearance of members of his own family, his friends, and followers. Royal dignity requires that he weep in private. The book is a reasoned critical attack on the Khmer Rouge leadership—and a good one—and it suggests that the only hope now for Cambodia is to pursue a cunning policy of co-existence with the invading Vietnamese. He stresses the crude racism of the Khmer Rouge, their insane boasts and ambitions, and blames them for the Vietnamese invasion, provoked, he believes, by their policy of genocide and megalomaniac irredentism.

His belief in the need for co-existence between Cambodia and Vietnam (within the strait jacket of the Sino-Soviet struggle) leads Sihanouk to far-fetched comparisons: he evokes the postwar rapprochement between France and Germany and the United States’ association with Japan. But this kind of speculation, like the unfortunate comparison of the “murder” by the Khmer Rouge of the Cambodia they loved with Othello’s “strangling” (sic) of Desdemona or the Mayerling tragedy in imperial Austria, will not be surprising to those familiar with Sihanouk’s ebullient character. It goes with his filmmaking and composing, his taste for pavement art, and for foie gras and champagne.

These interests have provided journalists with colorful copy for years, and he has done nothing to discourage them. It has never been understood in the West, however, that he has no personal fortune and never used his position to enrich himself. In the unique Cambodian setting he never needed private wealth: he simply drew for his needs on the state treasury. Public accountability did not exist. On his frequent travels there was always one member of the entourage, usually Mr. Ang Kim Khoan, director of the national chain of hotels, who carried a briefcase stuffed with currency and traveler’s checks, ready to settle hotel bills and attend to all the requirements of the princely suite.

Observing him one saw an Oriental potentate who nevertheless seemed partly French. “Le Cambodge, c’est moi,” he might once have said, without much exaggeration. Jean Lacouture once said he had come to Phnom Penh to see whether Cambodia really existed or was a figment of Sihanouk’s imagination. If this sounds unkind today, there is still a sense in which the Cambodia that has disappeared under US bombing, Khmer Rouge “re-structuring,” and Vietnamese colonization was partly a projection of the prince’s optimistic fantasy. The fumbling incompetence of so many of his rustic compatriots used to drive him to fury. His awareness of the crudity of so much in his country can, I think, be detected in a photograph published in this book, which shows him, camera in hand, inspecting skeptically a tiny “doit-yourself” hydroelectric dam at a Khmer Rouge cooperative. There was much wrong about the Western and Communist aid programs Sihanouk arranged for in his own day, but their products were better than this. Under Sihanouk, Phnom Penh was an impressive little city, with new boulevards and monuments, dreamed up by Sihanouk’s prolific brain. The country’s international existence, its presence at the United Nations and elsewhere was largely made possible by his own tour de force.

Historians of the debacle will find Sihanouk’s terse memoir of value chiefly for his revelations about the Khmer Rouge leaders. With self-deprecating candor he explains how they used him as a figurehead. Refused permission to join the fighting against Lon Nol because of his “irreplaceable” international position, he reveals he wanted to quit right away in 1970 and return to France as a refugee. It was his wife, Princess Monique, who “tearfully begged me to remain.” His word must be accepted. Once more he was “begged” to fulfill his destiny, this time by his wife, whom he has since called “my memory.”

Sihanouk sarcastically calls the top Khmer Rouge leaders “superintellectuals” and mentions their advanced French degrees. Khieu Samphan, who succeeded him as head of state, was a doctor of economics. Thiounn Mumm was “the only Khmer ever to graduate from France’s Ecole Polytechnique,” and the late Hou Yuon and Hu Nim were French doctors of law; both were murdered on Pol Pot’s jealous orders. Extracts from a confession wrung by torture from Hu Nim at the infamous Tuol Sleng political prison were recently published in the May 2 New Statesman.9

The overt message of the prince’s book is that the only solution is an “independent, neutral, peaceful, and open Cambodia.” He wants a multiparty parliamentary regime. Set against this idealism is a pessimistic awareness that a return of the Khmer Rouge is always possible and that they would restore “hell on earth.” From Sihanouk’s odd and not fully explained exile in Pyongyang, where he says he is the close friend and admirer of Kim Il-sung, the “great leader” and “democrat,” he also seems to be trying to make a covert and despairing point as well. This is that the Vietnamese will never get out of Cambodia unless the Chinese repeat their previous “punishment” of them—this time more successfully. This would inevitably mean the return of Pol Pot or someone similarly tyrannical.

Though he offers to temporize with the Vietnamese, Sihanouk dismisses the Heng Samrin government as a puppet regime and believes that the invaders have installed “irremediable famine.” In his last pages, he recognizes that China—ultimately the dominant power in the region, despite Vietnam’s current pre-eminence—will back anyone, including “reactionaries,” to foil the Russians. This applies to Sihanouk himself, if he plays the Chinese game, as well as to In Tam and other former Lon Nol officials and to the tough but small group of nationalists who follow Son Sann, a former premier, and are daring to fight both Vietnam and the Khmer Rouge. Among Son Sann’s followers are even the remnants of the old Democrat party which opposed Sihanouk in the early days of the struggle for independence from France.

If the Khmers could survive starvation and war, if they could obtain enough food to allow them to think and act for themselves, they would choose a free, democratic regime. But this self-evident truth, which applies elsewhere, simply has no chance of being applied in the geo-politics of Southeast Asia today. Sihanouk puts the tragedy of his country bluntly in his dedication “to my beloved Khmer people…now in its death throes due to the unchecked conflict between two types of Communism.”

  1. 1

    His first was My War with the CIA, written with the help of Wilfred Burchett (Pantheon, 1973).

  2. 2

    Agence France-Presse, Peking, June 11, 1980, quoting a telegram from Sihanouk from Pyongyang.

  3. 3

    Sihanouk has not been well served by his translator, though her rendering here of réduit en miettes (literally “smashed to smithereens”) is more effective than the original. There is no space here to list examples of inelegant, sometimes inaccurate translation.

  4. 4

    The Prevailing Wind: Witness in Indo-China (London: Methuen, 1965).

  5. 5

    See Adhémard Leclère: Histoire du Cambodge (Paris, 1914).

  6. 6

    Paris, Plon, 1971.

  7. 7

    Constance Phaulkon, the Greek-born seventeenth-century adventurer who became king’s favorite and dictator of policy in Thailand backing Louis XIV’s interests against the British. He was tortured and executed on the death of his patron, Phra Narai.

  8. 8

    Paris, Hachette/Stock, 1979.

  9. 9

    They are from a forthcoming book: Peasants and Politics in Kampuchea, 1942-1979, by Ben Kiernan and Chanthou Boua, to be published by Zed Press, London.

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