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Cambodia: Former King Sihanouk's War of Words Survives

Cambodia: Former King Sihanouk's War of Words Survive His Cremation

By Richard S. Ehrlich | Phnom Penh, Cambodia
February 20, 2013

Former king Norodom Sihanouk was cremated on February 4, but the flames could not destroy the legacy of his words, describing how he transported weapons to Vietnam's communists to kill Americans, and promising guns and ammunition to Cambodians to avenge the coup which toppled him.

Crowned by the Nazi-backed Vichy French regime in 1941, Sihanouk's most violent quotes were uttered in the early 1970s when he committed what critics say were his bloodiest mistakes.

Sihanouk's words give voice to his revenge-filled, contradictory personality as one of Asia's last powerful monarchs.

The U.S. Pentagon and politicians who "secretly" began bombing Cambodia in 1969 for five years -- during Washington's spiraling Vietnam War -- can hear Sihanouk ordering his military to allow deadly assistance to communist-nationalist Viet Cong guerrillas who eventually chased U.S. forces out of Vietnam.

"My own militant support for the Viet Cong was...no mere gesture," Sihanouk said.

"I granted them safe holds on the Cambodia-South Vietnam border, and ordered my army to transport Chinese and Soviet arms from Sihanoukville to the Viet Cong bases," he said in his book titled, Sihanouk Reminisces: World Leaders I Have Known.

He was toppled in a 1970 coup led by a pro-U.S. general, Lon Nol, partly because then-Prince Sihanouk's military transports to North Vietnamese were weakening Americans and South Vietnamese, but mostly because he cancelled lucrative U.S. assistance to his own corrupt military.

"Millions of our fellow countrymen who are now in the country, and thousands others outside the country, will certainly rise up to liquidate the reactionary group of Lon Nol, [Prince] Sirik Matak, [Head of State] Cheng Heng, and their American masters," Sihanouk said in a March 1970 broadcast from his Beijing sanctuary five days after the coup.

Vowing revenge, Sihanouk told Cambodian adults that they were "children" and he would teach them to kill.

"If the children have already got weapons, I will take measures to bring them ammunition and even new weapons to strengthen them," he said in the broadcast.

"If the children have not got weapons yet, and want to undergo training courses for national liberation, I will take measures to help you flee to the military school of the National United Front of Kampuchea (Cambodia), which will be set up deep in a forest to avoid enemy detection."

His audience included Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge rebels and others suffering massive U.S. bombardments.

Sihanouk's supporters say he did not ask Cambodians to join the Khmer Rouge, whose murderous intentions were not widely recognized at that time -- though some peasants did, to help Sihanouk.

Instead, his supporters say, he asked people to join an insurgent coalition with the Khmer Rouge during their 1970-1975 civil war against Lon Nol.

"And they will build -- after final victory -- a new Kampuchea with the power vested in the people's hands...and pure progressive spirit which will enable the people to build a nation with maximum prosperity, social justice, and equality," Sihanouk said.

His call helped strengthen Pol Pot's anti-American, Khmer Rouge, enabling them to oust Lon Nol in 1975 and create their frenzied "killing fields" regime which left nearly two million Cambodians dead.

Sihanouk became nominal head of state for Pol Pot's "year zero" administration from April 1975 to April 1976, which included immediate, total evacuations of Phnom Penh and other cities for most Cambodians, resulting in death marches to jungle labor camps.

In 1979, Sihanouk defended the Khmer Rouge at the United Nations in New York after they helped him flee Phnom Penh ahead Vietnam's invasion.

In 1982, Sihanouk again became Pol Pot's loosely aligned ally, in their frustrated guerrilla fight against Vietnam's decade-long occupation.

Sihanouk expressed concern about his image amid the warfare, political backstabbing and propaganda which all sides contributed to during the last few decades of the 20th century.

"It is true that I have been an authoritarian head of state, or more exactly a blend of (President) Sukarno of Indonesia and (President Gamal Abdel) Nasser of Egypt," then-King Norodom Sihanouk wrote in his 1981 memoir titled, Souvenirs Doux et Amers (Soft and Bitter Souvenirs).

"But I have never been in the same class as (President Idi) Amin Dada of Uganda, or (President Francisco) Macias Nguema of Equatorial Guinea -- even less, their undisputed master of cruelty, Pol Pot of Democratic Kampuchea."

*************

Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco, California, reporting news from Asia since 1978, and recipient of Columbia University's Foreign Correspondent's Award. He is a co-author of three non-fiction books about Thailand, including "Hello My Big Big Honey!" Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews; 60 Stories of Royal Lineage; and Chronicle of Thailand: Headline News Since 1946. Mr. Ehrlich also contributed to the final chapter, Ceremonies and Regalia, in a new book titled King Bhumibol Adulyadej, A Life's Work: Thailand's Monarchy in Perspective.

His websites are

http://asia-correspondent.tumblr.com
http://www.flickr.com/photos/animists/sets
http://www.amazon.com/Hello-My-Big-Honey-ebook/dp/B009ESEGY0

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