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The Lesser Evil’: An Interview with Norodom Sihanouk

Prince Norodom Sihanouk was king of Cambodia from 1941 to 1955. After forcing the French to grant independence to Cambodia, Sihanouk abdicated and ruled as an elected head of state until he was overthrown in a coup d’état in 1970. Sihanouk became the nominal head of an opposition coalition, dominated by the Khmer Rouge, which defeated General Lon Nol’s Khmer Republic in a civil war which ended in 1975. The Khmer Rouge put Sihanouk under house arrest where he remained until the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in January 1979.

In 1982 Sihanouk became president of the tripartite “Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea,” which includes the Khmer Rouge and forces loyal to former Prime Minister Son Sann. The coalition is fighting a guerrilla resistance against the Heng Samrin regime, which is backed by the Vietnamese occupation and controls most of Cambodia. The coalition government, however, is recognized by the United Nations and most of the countries outside the Soviet bloc as the legitimate government of Cambodia.

Thus Sihanouk is once again de jure head of state. Recently, on February 9, he visited the Cambodian town of Phum Thmey in the coalition’s “liberated zone” and there accepted the credentials of ambassadors from Senegal, North Korea, Bangladesh, and Mauritania. We spoke with him late last year in New York, where he had just finished addressing the United Nations General Assembly. The interview was conducted in English.

David Ablin
Marlowe Hood

Q: Your Royal Highness, we would like to ask you some questions about the contemporary situation, but since your views on that are better known, we would like to begin by asking you a few historical questions. In light of the events in Cambodia of the last fifteen years, is there anything that you would have done differently from 1945 to 1970?

A: You know I have always been dedicated to my homeland. I try to give happiness, some prosperity, and education to my people. I want my country to be independent, always independent. I have to defend my convictions as a patriot and as a national leader. I have done my best, but as a human being I cannot be perfect, nobody is perfect. Even your presidents in the contemporary history of the United States have only been able to do their best. President Carter is now so often criticized, but he did his best, and President Nixon as a patriot, as a human being, he could not avoid mistakes. I have made mistakes, but I cannot blame myself, not because I have pride, but you know I am not God, I am not a Buddha, I am not Christ.

There are good and bad aspects in me as a normal human being, but you must compare me with the other leaders in the contemporary history of Cambodia. I don’t think that Lon Nol was better. Lon Nol enjoyed your full support during the war and he lost the war. The Americans lost the war in Indochina because America relied on people like Ngo Dinh Diem, Nguyen Van Thieu, and Nguyen Cao Ky in South Vietnam, and Lon Nol and Sirik Matak in Cambodia. So the final results were that you gave Indochina and many advantages to the communists. I can quote the late Vice-Premier Sirik Matak who was very, very pro-American. He told the American press that the United States, by supporting corrupt and non-popular regimes like Lon Nol’s, indirectly served the cause of communism in Cambodia.

About the destruction of Cambodia there are two versions, two theses, one by William Shawcross, one by Henry Kissinger. So it is up to you to see whether Shawcross is right or Kissinger is right. May I quote here Sisowath Sirik Matak’s declaration to The New York Times on March 23, 1973:

General Sirik Matak reflecting on the republican regime that he helped to create three years ago after the overthrow of his cousin, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, said in an interview, “I believe that this regime must not survive and will not last. It is not supported by the people.” The general said sadly that if a free and honest election were held now with Prince Sihanouk and Marshal Lon Nol as candidates, the prince would win easily. Sirik Matak said: “If the United States continues to support such a regime, we will fall to the communists. When you support a regime not supported by the people, you help the communists.”

My friend Michael Mansfield made a declaration in Denver, Colorado, on October 31, 1972: “Senator Mike Mansfield pledged to push for the return to power of Cambodia’s Prince Sihanouk. He was the best ruler in Southeast Asia.” The Far Eastern Economic Review of November 18, 1972, stated: “In retrospect some people are discovering the wisdom of Sihanouk.” I can quote in French François Nivolon in Le Figaro for December 4, 1973:

Le paysan moyen, indifferent aux problèmes de politique internationale, raisonne simplement: “Quand Sihanouk était là, il n’y avait pas de guerre, et nous n’étions pas pauvres. Maintenant, il y a la guerre, et nous sommes pauvres.

The peasants in Cambodia told François Nivolon that when Sihanouk was in power in Cambodia, “We were not poor and now we are poor.”

No, I don’t think I was a perfect leader. I was far from being a perfect leader. But if people decide to consider Sihanouk a bad leader, I was certainly less bad than Lon Nol and Sirik Matak, less bad than Pol Pot, Ieng Sary, and Khieu Samphan, less bad than Heng Samrin and Hun Sen. People ignore that I helped build hospitals for my people. They ignore that I built many, many schools, colleges, and universities for the youth. Many people believe that I did not build any dams or factories to develop the economy of my country, but the facts show that I have done much for my people. And they accused my regime of being corrupt, but the ones who made a coup d’état against me, Lon Nol, Sirik Matak, and so on, were responsible for corruption in my regime. All those so-called Khmer republicans were monarchists. They served the monarchy and they were corrupt.

I have no wealth. I now survive thanks to China. Without the People’s Republic of China I could not have survived since the coup d’état of Lon Nol. But they can survive. Lon Nol is in California, his wife is very rich, while my wife and I have our clothes thanks to China and North Korean President Kim Il Sung. I have no money. If I had been corrupt, I could afford to have a good life. But I have a good life thanks to friends like Chou Enlai, the Chinese leadership since Mao Tsetung, and President Kim Il Sung.

I don’t pretend, I repeat, to be perfect, but when Cambodia was under my leadership, Cambodia was in much better shape than under Lon Nol and then under Pol Pot and now under Heng Samrin and the Vietnamese. And as far as my resistance against foreign intervention in my country is concerned, I don’t have to criticize myself because I have always been anticolonialist, anti-imperialist, and anti-expansionist. I had to fight against the French in order to get from them full independence for my country. I like France and the French people and France made me king in 1941, but I had to get for my country full independence. I got from France full independence in 1953.

After 1953 I had difficulties with the United States. At that time you know the United States was not like it is now. Now it is all right, but before, it did not allow my Cambodia to be really free. United States aid was conditional and the United States did not approve of my neutralist policy. As far as the compromise I made with the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong during the Indochina war is concerned, I could not avoid such a compromise. Lon Nol, after making a coup d’état against me in 1970, told the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese, “You go home. I won’t allow you to have sanctuaries in Cambodia.” The result was that the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong developed the sanctuaries and finally occupied the whole of Cambodia. Despite the intervention of the American Army, the American Air Force, and the South Vietnamese Army, everything was lost to America and to Lon Nol. They lost everything to the Vietcong and to the North Vietnamese.

I had to balance the influences of the West and the East and I had to walk on a tightrope. That was unavoidable. I don’t think that I was guilty for trying to safeguard the essential interests of my country in order to let my country survive. We had to face the misunderstanding of the USA on the one hand, and the North Vietnamese and Vietcong pressure on the other. The lesser evil consisted for me of having a compromise. So I had to let the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese have small sanctuaries near the border of South Vietnam and inside Kampuchea. This I could not avoid. It was difficult for a leader in Kampuchea to behave otherwise because the situation was so difficult, so difficult. So in brief, I don’t have to criticize myself. You can criticize me, but I cannot, because I was guided always by my conscience.

As far as the Vietnamese themselves are concerned, if I could have remained head of state, then I’m sure that I could have prevented them from invading Cambodia. But Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge made provocations against the Vietnamese from when Pol Pot took power in 1975 to 1977. In 1978 Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge had more and more clashes with the Vietnamese. The Vietnamese and the Khmer Rouge won the war against the Americans but there was a split among them as winners after the withdrawal of the United States troops. China and the Khmer Rouge were on one side, Russia and North Vietnam were on the other side. The 1979 invasion of Cambodia by Vietnam was a result of this dispute. So you know it is not my fault. I was a prisoner in the hands of the Khmer Rouge. I could not save my country. Now everybody wants me to save my country, but I am not a god, I am powerless. But I am doing my best as the leader of the coalition in the process of resisting the Vietnamese.

Q: What do you think the Vietnamese goal is in Kampuchea? What do you think they hope to attain?

A: There is a split among the communist powers who won the war. The People’s Republic of China and the USSR supported the Vietnamese and the Khmer Rouge when they had to fight against the USA and its protégés and satellites in Saigon, Vientiane, and Phnom Penh. The communists won the war in 1975 and then they split. If I may say so, there are now two communist churches, one with Peking as the leader and another with Moscow as the leader. So now we, Cambodia, are the victims of the dispute between the two communist camps. I personally, as a patriot, want my Cambodia to be safe. What people now call “the problem of Kampuchea” can be solved only if China and the USSR succeed one day in improving their relations. Otherwise, if the dispute between the two communist camps continues, we will not see the end of the misery of Cambodia and the Cambodian people. The two camps want to dominate the former French Indochina because Indochina, including Cambodia, has a very important strategic position in Southeast Asia and in Asia. That is the reason why the French occupied Indochina after 1860; and after the French, the Japanese came into Indochina during the Second World War; and after the Second World War, the Americans came into Indochina; and after the departure of the Americans so came the Russians.

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