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Norodom Sihanouk’s state funeral in February marked the end of a controversial era in Cambodian history.

Few monarchs have embraced the life and times of their country as dramatically as King Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia, whose earthly remains were cremated on Feb. 4, 2013, while more than a mil- lion of his subjects watched in awe and devotion. Sihanouk died of a heart attack two weeks shy of his 90th birthday, on Oct. 15, 2012, bringing to an end his role on the world stage, which began in 1941 when the 18-year-old was installed as a “puppet king” during French colonial rule. But Sihanouk exhibited his guile and nationalist fervor by outfoxing the French and leading Cambodia to independence— without a bloody war as experienced by Laos and Vietnam. “The French chose me because they thought I was a lamb,” Sihanouk wrote. “But they found out I was a tiger.”

A resilient leader and survivor, Sihanouk is identified by the Guinness World Records as the modern royal who has held the world’s greatest variety of state roles: He was king twice, prince twice, president once, prime minister twice, leader of various governments in exile and head of state for the Khmer Rouge. Sihanouk is most remembered by Americans for his sometimes useful and often vexing maneuvers to keep his country from becoming involved in the Vietnam War. Sihanouk tried to achieve neutrality but made choices and alliances that ultimately embroiled Cambodia in the war and chaos. His decision to allow the North Vietnamese to establish bases in Cambodia led to massive American bombing, brutal civil war and the takeover by the genocidal Khmer Rouge, who executed 1.7 million Cambodians during their reign from 1975 to 1979.

To what extent Sihanouk was responsible for the disasters that overtook Cambodia during the past four decades is a question his death rekindled everywhere, it seems, except in Cambodia, where the people bid farewell with great affection to the man they consider the last descendant of the god-kings of Angkor. It’s not surprising that Sihanouk’s years are remembered by Cambodians as an era of peace and prosperity before war and revolution tore their country apart. He symbolized the survival of Cambodian culture and society in the face of adversity. Most Cambodians are proud of their Angkorean heritage, and Sihanouk connected them to a glorious past that anchors Cambodian identity in the present. Even the Khmer Rouge placed the outline of the temple of Angkor Wat on their national flag. For every Cambodian, Sihanouk personified the monarchy. Sihanouk’s compassion for his people and concern for their welfare added to his store of merit, which Buddhists believe ensures rebirth into one of their heavens.

Sihanouk foresaw developments in Indochina more clearly than anyone in Washington, and has been praised for his efforts to shield Cambodia from the war in Vietnam. His suspicion of the Vietnamese Communists, who he rightly believed would win the war, led him to build close relations with China as the only power with the capacity to keep Vietnam in check. This led him to pursue a left-leaning neutrality that caused a rift with the United States.

Sihanouk’s worst error of judgment came in 1970, when he angrily responded to his removal from power by the U.S.- backed Lon Nol faction. He called on the people of Cambodia to support the Khmer Rouge and overthrow Lon Nol. With Sihanouk removed from power, his tacit agreement with North Vietnam collapsed, leading Hanoi to unleash the Khmer Rouge and pour in support for the insurgency—just as Sihanouk’s call to arms increased recruitment to the Khmer Rouge. The Vietnamese invasion that overthrew the Khmer Rouge at the end of 1979 realized Sihanouk’s worst fears: Cambodia as part of an Indochinese union dominated by Vietnam.

Although Sihanouk played his cards and lost, the Cambodian people do not blame him for the maelstrom that hit their country. Even former adversaries praised him upon his death. John Gunther Dean, U.S. ambassador to Cambodia in 1974-75, wrote: “Sihanouk was aware that Cambodia’s salvation depended on neutrality, and he has always protected the strategic interests of Cambodia. He was a nationalist who strove to keep his country out of the Indochina War. He was so perfectly right!…Small countries must steer clear of the Great Powers’ conflicts….He has been a neutralist his whole life long, but the Western world, and particularly the U.S., did not approve his policy….History will prove him right. May he rest in peace.”

I first met then-Prince Sihanouk in 1964, when I was as- signed to direct a documentary on him by NDR German Television News. My TV crew and I followed him around Cambodia for a month, much to his delight. A film producer himself, Sihanouk often tried to advise me on how to direct the documentary about him. He once showed me a film he produced and starred in as the intrepid Chinese detective Charlie Chan. The last day of our tour with him was in Kampong Cham, where he presented medals to local officials. He found himself with several medals left over and said, “Mr. Don, here’s a medal for you too, for friendship to my country.”

Accompanying Prince Sihanouk on the tour was his second wife, Paule Monique Izzi (now referred to as Queen Mother Monanieth), whom he met while judging a beauty contest. Her mother was Cambodian and her father French. Although Sihanouk had many wives and fathered 14 children, Monique was his faithful companion through the years. She was not his highest-ranking wife, but the laws of succession were changed in 2000 to make only her children eligible to succeed to the throne. She bore Sihanouk two boys, Sihamoni in 1953 and Narindrapong in 1954, both of whom studied in Moscow and later lived in France. Groomed to be king, Narindrapong died of a heart attack in 2003. Sihamoni, although unprepared, assumed the throne in October 2004 at his father’s behest. King Sihamoni, 59, studied ballet in Prague for 25 years and speaks fluent Czech. Single and widely assumed to be gay, by most accounts he ascended the throne reluctantly and does not appear to have inherited his father’s political skills, still vitally needed in the deadly political climate of Cambodia.

The powerful prime minister Hun Sen, a former member of the Khmer Rouge who defected in 1977 and later led Cambodian rebels sponsored by Vietnam in overthrowing the Khmer Rouge, is said to have sworn before Sihanouk’s corpse a sacred oath to protect the monarchy, but there is little evidence that he will relinquish any of the power he has gained over 28 years as prime minister. He is reportedly grooming his three sons for power. His eldest son is already a two-star general, his brother a provincial governor, a nephew the national police chief. His family, relatives and friends control vast real estate and business enterprises. Bridges, schools and roads across the country bear Hun Sen’s name or that of his influential wife, Bun Rany.

Cambodians I met during the days of funeral ceremonies in February expressed little respect for Hun Sen’s power or the “kleptocracy” Cambodia has become under his rule, with its supporting clique of former Communist Khmer Rouge apparatchiks. “Hun Sen is selling Phnom Penh real estate and even people’s farmland to Korean, Russian and Chinese millionaires and pocketing most of the money,”my youthful taxi driver told me.“While they get rich and drive big cars, we have to pay bribes for a doctor’s care and even our children must bring bribes to the teacher every morning. Whatever else he did, our King-Father Sihanouk was not corrupt.”

Word on the street was that Hun Sen was shocked by the spontaneous outpouring of grief by the hundreds of thousands of Cambodians who lined processional routes when Sihanouk’s body was returned from China, where he had been living in self-imposed exile since 2004. It is assumed that Hun Sen then decided his government would gain popular support by giving the “king-father” a royal send-off. The funeral ceremonies became an occasion to restore and celebrate traditional Khmer culture. A five-story pagoda within which the body would be cremated was built at a cost of $1.2 million. The memorial, which stretched over four days, included an exotic procession of marching groups, chanting Buddhist monks, military formations, gamelan orchestras and the bier of King Sihanouk mounted on an elaborate carriage. An estimated 1 million citizens lined the streets of Phnom Penh to pay their respects to the dead king along a six-kilometer route from the Royal Palace to the elaborate pagoda crematorium.

While Cambodia waits for King Sihamoni to emerge from his father’s shadow, the kingdom’s monarchy is withering. Markus Karbaum, a Southeast Asia expert at the Free University of Berlin, writes that Sihamoni is “introverted, emotional and gentle—soft characteristics that may not fit the traditional notion of head of state….Prime Minister Hun Sen controls which royal is eligible [to be king and] has successfully reduced the monarchy to a ceremonial playground for the regal family and its followers….The political royal movement that once enjoyed significant support has faltered to a standstill, as strongman Hun Sen has tightened his grip on power….Cambodians have had to shift their perceptions of traditional hierarchy: having ensured the king reigns and does not rule, the government has enjoyed a power shift that endows Hun Sen with the unofficial status of ‘real king.’…It takes very little to imagine that the Cambodian monarchy will be buried shortly after Sihanouk’s mortal remains are encased.”

The patronage network that keeps Hun Sen in power has produced a massive, irresponsible distribution of wealth, most of it concentrated in Phnom Penh. Former U.S. Ambassador to China Winston Lord minced no words recently when he described the government under Hun Sen: “Cambodian officials range from venal to vicious to pathological.Outsiders and donors are nonchalant, naive or enablers. Corruption has succeeded the Khmer Rouge as torturer and killer. Trapped in an unending nightmare are the Cambodian people, passive and resigned.”

Sihanouk’s funeral came at a time of relative stability in Cambodia and rising prosperity in the capital. But economic growth has passed by the countryside, where the majority of the nation’s 15 million people live. Just a quarter of Cambodians have access to electricity, and about a third of homes have no running water. In the region, only Burma is poorer than Cambodia, and even North Korea has a higher standard of living.

According to Chahay Sareth, the popular governor of Pursat Province: “Cambodians have been poisoned by the struggle to survive. We are a broken society.” The wounds of three decades of war have not healed. Several studies have demonstrated that up to half of all Cambodians who lived through the Khmer Rouge era have post-traumatic stress disorder attributable to their harrowing experiences watching soldiers execute family members or seeing friends die of starvation. Although two-thirds of the population is now under 30, born after the Khmer Rouge, the symptoms of PTSD are thought to be passed on from one generation to the next.

Rivaling the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal rampage was the impact of the heavy U.S. bombing by B-52s between 1969-70. The United States dropped more bombs on Cambodia than the Allies dropped in all of World War II. Although the B-52s targeted North Vietnamese bases, it has been estimated the bombing killed and maimed hundreds of thousands of civilians and drove many to join the Khmer Rouge.

In 1998 Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot died, escaping any punishment for his war crimes. The United Nations and Cambodian judges in 2005 finally set up a tribunal, known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, to put remaining Khmer Rouge leaders on trial. The proceedings have been hobbled by delays, lack of funding and corruption.

Khmer Rouge co-founder Ieng Sary, probably the worst war criminal the world has seen since Genghis Khan, died on March 4, 2013, while on trial for genocide. The tribunal, which has cost $173 million to date, may be run by the United Nations, but Hun Sen controls it. Only two other former Khmer Rouge leaders—Nuon Chea, 86, and Khieu Samphan, 82—are still on trial, but it’s unlikely they will live long enough to be judged. Just one former Khmer leader,“Duch,”warden of the infamous Tuol Sleng prison, has been convicted and sentenced to life in prison. The dissolution of this so-called war crimes tribunal, which most Cambodians consider a monumental mockery of justice, would be no loss. The current defense minister, interior minister, finance minister and a number of army generals and provincial governors are former Khmer Rouge and political allies of Hun Sen.

Meanwhile, Cambodians still die from unexploded Khmer land mines and U.S. bombs. Cambodia is still one of the most heavily mined countries in the world. The Cambodian Mine Action Center estimates that 64,202 people have been killed or maimed by mines or unexploded bombs since 1979, and some 40,000 Cambodians are amputees. However, casualties that used to run around 1,000 per year have now been reduced to 185 in the past year. It is estimated that more than 250 square miles of village and rural farmland is still contaminated and unusable.

For four days beginning on February 1, Cambodians in long lines filed past King Sihanouk’s body lying in state in Phnom Penh. They burned joss sticks and candles late into the night in front of the Royal Palace. On the final day, a dozen heads of state assembled for the king’s cremation. The U.S. ambassador to Cambodia, William E. Todd, represented the United States.

As a 100-barrage artillery salute echoed through the streets of the capital and fireworks lit the night sky, the new King Sihamoni and Queen Mother Monanieth entered the cremation pagoda. In privacy, finally without the ever-present TV cameras, they ignited the gas jets under Norodom Sihanouk’s body. Only light wisps of white smoke could be seen ascending.

Jim Pringle, a long-time Reuters reporter, probably interviewed Sihanouk more times than any other foreign journalist. In his last interview Sihanouk told Pringle: “I have no remorse. I always did everything in the highest interest of my nation, my conscience is clear.”

Pringle, who has lived in Phnom Penh for the last several years, believes history will judge Sihanouk favorably. “There’s no doubt his time in power was a golden age for Cambodia,” he said.“How can you look at the insanity of Lon Nol or crimes against humanity of the Khmer Rouge or the bullying and land grabbing of the current bunch and say otherwise? [Sihanouk] brought the country to peaceful independence and kept it out of the bloody conflict in Vietnam as long as he could. There will never be another Sihanouk. He was an original. But even god-kings die.”

The outpouring of grief and displays of devotion of millions of Cambodians since the death of Norodom Sihanouk have seemed to connect them with a better past, while at the same time creating a possible bridge to a better future. With some of the king’s ashes cast into the confluence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers and the rest preserved in a golden urn inside the Royal Palace, Cambodians turned their attention to the elections in July. Hun Sen was certain to win again.


Don North was a freelance photographer and later a staff war correspondent for ABC and NBC in Vietnam for more than four years.

Originally published in the October 2013 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.