Norodom Sihanouk, the former King of Cambodia, who has died aged 89, was only intermittently a monarch; for more than half a century, though, he played a leading part in the tragic post-war history of his country.
As king from 1941 to 1955 he outwitted the French government to win independence for Cambodia, before abdicating to gain political power.
As ruler between 1955 and 1970 he strove to make Cambodia “a haven of peace” amid the fury of the Vietnam War.
Subsequently, as an exile, he conspired with Chinese communists to liberate Cambodia from “the imperialist clique” which had replaced him. He must therefore bear some responsibility for the murderous domination of the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1978.
Even so, during the 1980s, when a Vietnamese government ruled Cambodia, Sihanouk remained the sole figure capable of uniting the opposition. In 1991 he finally returned to Phnom Penh as chairman of the Supreme National Council. Two years later, after an election under United Nations auspices, the National Assembly restored him as monarch, albeit one who would “reign not rule”.
Sihanouk’s character was as unpredictable as his fortunes, for he combined the characteristics of an educated Frenchman and an Oriental despot. His generosity and good humour were genuine, and enabled him to pose with some conviction as the father of his people. On the other hand he was capable of ruthlessness and a disregard for the processes of law, as in the execution of political opponents.
In his palmy days Sihanouk edited magazines, directed films, conducted jazz bands, and crooned songs of his own composing. Yet he was shrewd enough to remember, even in the wake of his metropolitan indulgences, that the source of his power lay in the loyalty of the Cambodian peasantry.
If his evenings were dedicated to hedonism, the next morning would find him listening patiently to the complaints of villagers, for whom he represented the quasi-religious authority of his ancestors, the “god-kings” of Angkor.
Samdech Preah Norodom Sihanouk was born in Phnom Penh on October 31 1922, the scion of two much-intermarried royal families, the Norodoms and the Sisowaths, who had ruled Cambodia for several hundred years. His father, Prince Suramarit, was the grandson of King Norodom, ruler of the turbulent vestigial kingdom when the French first imposed their protectorate in 1863.
The boy’s mother called him “Thoul”, or “Tubby”. All his life he would be obliged to alternate his gourmet indulgences with slimming sessions in French health clinics.
Sihanouk was educated in Saigon, Vietnam and Paris. In 1941, when he was chosen to succeed his grandfather, King Monivong, he was still at the Lycée Chasseloup Laubat in Saigon; his fellow pupils remembered him as friendly and timid, and far from enthusiastic at the prospect of becoming king.
French Indo-China was then under Japanese hegemony, though the influence of Tokyo was kept precariously at arm’s length by the pro-Axis policy of Vichy. Sihanouk had been trained by his advisers to support Marshal Pétain, but after the end of the Second World War, as Indo-Chinese independence became imminent under the auspices of the Viet Minh communists, he skilfully disentangled himself from the French.
The Cambodians, regarded by the French as too backward and incompetent to conduct their own affairs, were agitating for freedom. But the main group making this demand, the Democratic Party, combined its anti-French stance with hostility to the monarchy, which it regarded as a tool of Paris.
Sihanouk exchanged the easy, futile life of puppet king for the risky role of national leader. Aware that the national assembly, in which the Democratic Party held a massive majority, was effectively powerless, he highhandedly dismissed them.
But though he did not hesitate to use French help in the form of Senegalese troops brought from Saigon, he promptly embarked on his own “Crusade for National Independence”.
At first the French refused to give Cambodia the full independence which Sihanouk was demanding. But in February 1953, after they had tried to fob him off with a lunch at the Elysée with President Auriol, he flew to Canada, the United States and Japan to ventilate his grievances, notably in a flamboyant interview with The New York Times.
Back in Cambodia, Sihanouk stayed out of French control and moved to his villa at Siem Rep, close to Angkor, the capital of his ancient Khmer ancestors. There, in a daring bluff, he stirred up the population in his support.
His threat sufficed to persuade the French to give in, and to grant Cambodia full independence on November 9 1953. They had been vanquished by the theatrical antics of a king whom they had believed to be their own creature. And by 1955, when Cambodia became financially viable in its own right, Sihanouk’s reputation had been further enhanced.
Sihanouk, though, proceeded to abdicate his throne in favour of his father, Prince Norodom Suramarit. His aim, to give himself a more solid political base, abundantly succeeded, for the Sangkum Reastr Niyum, or Popular Socialist Community, which he set up, won 83 per cent of the vote in the election of 1955.
From then until 1970 Sihanouk ruled supreme. When his father died in 1961, he assumed the office of Head of State, but retained only the title of Samdech Upayuvareach, “His Royal Highness the former King”, styled as Monseigneur. His mother became the ceremonial representative of the ancient monarchy.
Sihanouk strove to solve Cambodia’s economic and social problems through the idiosyncratic ideology of “Royal Buddhist socialism”. His aim was “a democracy comprehensible to the people”, in which the untutored masses would exercise “a real, direct and continuous control of institutions”.
At the biennial national congresses of Sangkum Reastr, citizens were encouraged to pillory officials and ministers with their grievances. The proceedings were dominated by the ebullient Prince, whose high-pitched voice could be heard through loudspeakers (and on the national radio system), goading officials and sharing jokes with his rustic audience.
Throughout the late 1950s and the 1960s Sihanouk’s most serious concern was to keep Cambodia out of the escalating war in Vietnam. This aim involved a hardening of the anti-American prejudice he had inherited from the French — even if he continued to accept American aid, and to proclaim himself “friend to all, ally of none”.
Jealous of Cambodia’s neutrality, Sihanouk refused to place the country under the protection of SEATO. Instead, he tightened relations with Prime Minister Nehru of India, President Sukarno of Indonesia and President Tito of Yugoslavia. Zhou Enlai, the Chinese Communist leader, became a close friend.
In November 1963 Sihanouk, convinced that the South Vietnamese and the Thais were preparing, with American approval, to invade Cambodia, ordered an end to the US military aid programme, so cutting off 15 per cent of the national budget. In March 1964 he organised a “spontaneous” demonstration of anger against the British and American embassies. The British chancery building and the premises of the British Council were sacked by mobs carrying cane-knives.
Trade was nationalised; private banks were closed. As a result the business community traded clandestinely, and a large part of Cambodia’s rice crop was smuggled out and sold at inflated prices to the communist insurgents in Vietnam.
To prevent this, the army was ordered in 1967 to collect much of the rice harvest at an official price, and to store it in government warehouses. At Samlaut, near Battambang, peasant resentment turned into armed revolt during which some 10,000 fleeing farmers were killed.
Sihanouk was convinced that the Vietnamese communists and Cambodian leftists were behind these troubles. He tried in vain to renew relations with Washington and to obtain the restoration of economic and military aid to a country now sinking into an economic morass.
As the situation deteriorated, Sihanouk seemed to lose his political instinct. He cancelled valuable West German aid when Bonn criticised his recognition of East Germany. He allowed Chinese from Macau to open a casino in Phnom Penh which became a ruinous temptation to its citizens.
He also devoted much time to making sentimental feature films, of which he was author, producer, director and principal actor, and awarded himself an Oscar for his film Twilight.
In March 1970, during Sihanouk’s absence in Europe, the National Assembly in Phnom Penh withdrew its support, and he was removed from office by a coup d’état planned by his pro-Western cousin Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak and executed by the previously loyal General Lon Nol, the Prime Minister and Minister of Defence. The monarchy was abolished and Cambodia declared a republic. Sihanouk fled to Beijing , and Sihanouk proceeded to denounce “the tools of American imperialism” and to ally himself with the extreme pro-Chinese communist group of Cambodian revolutionaries, the Khmer Rouge, whom he himself had driven into exile. His “Royal Government of National Unity” (known as GRUNK), based in Beijing, was dedicated to the defeat of Lon Nol.
Sihanouk’s Khmer Rouge minder was Ieng Sary, later one of the most feared men in Cambodia. In Beijing, Sihanouk amused himself by embarrassing the puritanical communist with pornographic films, borrowed from the French embassy. “Ieng Sary will have to go through terrible self-criticism tomorrow”, he would say.
In 1975 the Khmer Rouge, with North Vietnamese military assistance, captured Phnom Penh and instituted their genocidal regime. The city population was forced out into the countryside — “the Killing Fields” — where perhaps more than a million Cambodians died in massacres ordered by the Khmer Rouge President Khieu Samphan and his Prime Minister Pol Pot.
Sihanouk, though nominally head of state, had become a catspaw in their hands. He was allowed to return to Phnom Penh, but confined with his wife Monique to a modest villa in the Royal Palace compound, where he was required to do his own cooking. Six of his children, as well as other members of the royal family, were either killed or died from maltreatment.
In 1978 Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia, in a war provoked by Pol Pot. Only hours before the Vietnamese occupation of Phnom Penh, Sihanouk was freed, probably at Chinese instigation, and flown to Beijing, where he gave a six-hour press conference in which he denounced both the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnam invasion.
His attitude to the ousted Khmer Rouge was unpredictable: one day he promised to serve them; soon afterwards he would attack Pol Pot as a murderer. In truth, he had no illusions about the Khmer Rouge — “I don’t believe you can turn a tiger into a cat,” he remarked when the Chinese urged that they might behave more gently in future.
Nevertheless, he believed that co-operation with the Khmer Rouge was necessary if the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, the puppet regime which Cambodia’s traditional enemy Vietnam had established in Phnom Penh, was to be removed.
Sihanouk retreated to a palace provided by the North Korean government in Pyongyang — he even succeeded in making friends with President Kim Il Sung — but remained the focus of Cambodian national resistance to the Phnom Penh regime.
Under pressure from Beijing, he agreed in 1982 to a political marriage of convenience with Khieu Samphan, chief of the Khmer Rouge, whom he had condemned to death in the 1960s, and Son Sann, a Right-wing Buddhist who expressed a profound contempt for his former king.
Their squabbles continued through a series of abortive international negotiations until, in June 1991, at the Thai seaside resort of Pattaya, Sihanouk finally persuaded the various Cambodian factions — including the Vietnamese puppet government, the People’s Republic of Kampuchea — to declare a ceasefire.
It was a considerable achievement, which Sihanouk celebrated by treating the delegates to showings of two of his old films. That October the accord was ratified at a Paris conference, which restored Sihanouk as head of state.
It was also agreed that, while elections were being organised, the UN should take over the functions of government, and that Cambodian refugees should be repatriated. Soon afterwards Sihanouk returned in triumph to Phnom Penh.
His attitude to the Khmer Rouge remained equivocal. One Monday he advocated trying their leaders for genocide; on Wednesday he called them “monsters... but intelligent”; on Thursday he called for an exhibition of their atrocities to be dismantled; and on Saturday (after they had recognised him as head of state) he pronounced himself “touched and moved” by their loyalty.
As the violence continued throughout 1992, Sihanouk protested against the terrorist tactics of his opponents; nevertheless, in the election of May 1993 Funcinpec, the royalist party led by his son Ranariddh, won 45 per cent of the vote, although the Cambodian People’s Party gained almost as many seats.
There was a fortnight of political chaos, which Sihanouk resolved by declaring himself head of state, Prime Minister and chief of the armed forces. By early July he had succeeded in establishing an interim government, with Ranariddh and HE, leader of the Cambodian People’s Party, as joint Prime Ministers.
Sihanouk modestly pledged that he would resist the popular clamour (led by his son Ranariddh) to return to the throne, but in September, when the National Assembly restored the monarchy, he found himself compelled to accept their decision.
Already suffering from cancer, he still spoke optimistically of a liberal democracy in which human rights would be respected — but in the West his North Korean bodyguards and his continued flirtation with the Khmer Rouge did not inspire confidence. In 1997 HE led a successful coup, and remains in power to this day. Sihanouk’s influence diminished, and he abdicated in 2004, citing ill health.
Sihanouk had two official wives, Princess Thavet Norleak (his first cousin) and Princess Monique. He and Norleak separated in 1968, and they had no surviving children . Monique, née Izzi, daughter of a French entrepreneur of Italian origin and a Phnom Penh divorcee, became Sihanouk’s closest companion.
The elder of her two sons, Sihamoni (born in 1953) became a ballet coach at the Paris Opera, and succeeded his father as king in 2004. The second is Narindrapong (born in 1954) .
The young king also fathered several children out of wedlock, including two by a dancer in the royal ballet. These were Princess Bopha Devi (born 1943), who herself became the star dancer in the ballet, and Prince Ranariddh, who studied law in France.
Princess Monikessan, Sihanouk’s young aunt, bore him a son, Naradipo (born 1946) , who died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.
Another aunt, Princess Pongsamoni, bore him four sons: Yuvanath (born 1943); Ravivong (born 1944) who died during the Khmer Rouge period; Chakrapong (born 1945); and Khemanurakh (born 1949), who was also a Khmer Rouge victim. Princess Pongsamoni had three daughters: Soriyaraingsey (born 1947) and Botumbopha (born 1951), both of whom were killed by the Khmer Rouge; and Kantha Bopha, who died in infancy — the inconsolable Sihanouk carried her ashes with him on all his travels.
Mam Manivann, a Laotian, bore him two daughters, Sucheatvateya (born in 1953), killed by the Khmer Rouge, and Arunrasmey (born in 1955).
Norodom Sihanouk, former King of Cambodia, born October 31 1922, died October 15 2012
Norodom Sihanouk: Mercurial politician who led Cambodia through years of turbulence
he legendary Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia guided his country through half a century of revolution and war in Indo-China. Although he began and ended his career as king, Sihanouk served for much of his time as Crown Prince, elected Prime Minister and for 20 years as ruler-in-exile. This interregnum began in 1970 when he was overthrown in his absence by a right-wing general, Lon Nol. Five years later, the Lon Nol regime was overthrown by the murderous Khmer Rouge communists, who subjected the land to the horror of the "Killing Fields".
From 1979, the Khmer Rouge engaged in a devastating war against Communist Vietnam. It was not until 1990 that Sihanouk came home from exile in Beijing to join in elections organised by the United Nations. In his last spell as ruler he helped to restore what was left of the country's cultural and religious institutions. Sihanouk became King once more but renounced the title in 2004, 50 years after his first abdication.
Sihanouk was a schoolboy when he came to the throne of a country still under French occupation. Although the Cambodians did not follow the Vietnamese in armed rebellion against the French, King Sihanouk saw the conflict in the adjoining land as a way of obtaining independence, which came in 1954. Even before then, Sihanouk had announced his intention to abdicate and to seek election as popular ruler.
Whether as King or elected Prime Minister, Sihanouk counted upon the loyalty, indeed veneration of the devoutly Buddhist peasants. He never ceased to remind the Khmers of their glorious past in the Kingdom of Angkor, which once reigned over much of modern Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. He was the patron and impresario of the Royal Ballet, whose dancing girls also formed his harem. Sihanouk travelled about the country, hearing complaints, administering justice, doling out gifts of money or bundles of clothes, and exchanging lewd jests with the peasant women.
Sihanouk marched with the times as patron of football, jazz – in which he excelled as saxophonist – and cinema, in which he performed as actor, cameraman and director. Yet Sihanouk's greatest performance came each year when he blessed the confluence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers just at the place and time when the waters reverse with the tide and flow upstream to the lake between Phnom Penh and Angkor, producing a second abundance of rice and fish.
Although Sihanouk flattered the pride of the Khmers in their ancient empire and their distinctive dark appearance, he did not encourage resentment against the light-skinned Chinese and Vietnamese, who formed the majority of the trading and artisan classes. Nevertheless, Prince Sihanouk frequently quarrelled and broke off diplomatic relations with Thailand, Laos, Communist North Vietnam and anti-Communist South Vietnam, where some of his own domestic foes had taken asylum.
A broadcast from Saigon in December 1963, including some rude remarks about Sihanouk's sexual adventures, led him to break with South Vietnam and its friend the United States. Sihanouk asked for help from China and seemed to have joined the Communist bloc. As a mark of respect for Communist China, Sihanouk closed down all Cambodia's nightclubs, at any rate all those not owned by his wife. Yet in spite of his newly found support and financial aid from China, Sihanouk frequently rounded up and expelled the Maoists in Phnom Penh's Chinese community.
During his heyday in the 1960s, Sihanouk relished state visits from foreign dignitaries such as De Gaulle and Tito and glamorous women like Princess Margaret and Jackie Kennedy. The monthly magazine Kambudja – editor: Prince Norodom Sihanouk – gave much space to these state occasions, with scores of photographs of the Prince. A prolific journalist, Sihanouk wisely kept out all those foreign colleagues who wrote rude things about Cambodia, in particular those who called it "small", or worse, "tiny". He once published a list of all the countries in the world ranked by population and size, proving that "tiny" Cambodia was far from the smallest.
An eclectic statesman, Sihanouk borrowed from England the concept of having a parliamentary opposition. In October 1966, a general election had brought in too many "wrong" MPs, critical of the Prince. As head of state he could have dismissed the elected regime and installed himself as Prime Minister. He sagely resisted this, saying instead that Cambodia now was to have a "Loyal Opposition". The Opposition was formed and started to publish a daily Bulletin of the Counter-Government – under the editorship of Sihanouk. Savage articles from his pen accused the government of corruption, sloth and incompotence, until the Prime Minister grew so upset that he had to resign – to be replaced by Prince Norodom Sihanouk.
The new Prime Minister continued to edit the Bulletin of the Counter Government, which like most of Cambodia's press, frequently carried reports on the Prince's dieting visits to Grasse or Vichy, with headlines like: "This week Prince Norodom Sihanouk lost 10 kilos". During his dieting visit to France in 1968, the Prince lost several kilos but then regained them when, in a visit to a local school, he first made a speech than took all the pupils out for a feast at a local pastry shop, matching them cake for cake.
Those aspects of Cambodian life that foreigners found strange, or even absurd, were nevertheless true to the country's tradition and culture. Buddha himself taught that the truth, the Middle Way, was sometimes arrived at through paradox and confusion. Sihanouk's parliamentary group was called the Royal Buddhist Socialist Party. Prince Sihanouk ruled in the style of emperors from Europe's Middle Ages. They too had been cultural mentors, priests of the state religion, philosophers of the national will and masters of public ceremony.
Prince Sihanouk had a distrust of westernisms and -ocracies. He was often attacked because Cambodia would not admit the hippies who roamed the East in the 1960s. An article in the Bulletin of the Counter-Government set out to justify this apparently harsh attitude. The writer first explained that Cambodians sympathised with the hippy dislike of modern western society; the Cambodians, too, were in revolt against industrialism, violence and hypocrisy. But in Cambodia, the article went on, "the advance of science has not yet destroyed the foundation of our culture, which remains firm. The visiting hippies would have more to learn from us than to teach us. And in order to learn they should modify their behaviour out of respect for our culture and thought."
After a visit to Cambodia in 1968, I wrote in parody of an American journalist visiting Lenin's Russia: "I have seen the past – and it works". Prince Sihanouk accepted this as a compliment.
We still do not know how or why Sihanouk fell from power during his absence abroad in March 1970. For some years the North Vietnamese had used Cambodia as a supply base and staging post for their troops in South Vietnam. Since 1969, the US had been bombing the North Vietnamese inside Cambodia. After his deportation, Sihanouk claimed the bombing was done without his knowledge or approval, but this is unlikely. Cambodia prospered during the 1960s by selling rice to the Vietnamese Communists in return for dollars bought on the black market in Saigon. However Sihanouk fretted about this Vietnamese presence, which offered encouragement to the local Communists to whom who he had given the nickname "Khmer Rouge".
On his return to power in the 1990s, Sihanouk reminded the Khmer that whatever the horror and suffering of the last two decades they still could look back with pride to medieval Angkor. Whatever the hungry years of war and collectivisation, the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers would still continue to change direction, filling the land with rice and fish.
Of all the politicians and generals from many nations who strutted through Indo-China during the last five decades, only Prince Norodom Sihanouk came away with a certain glory.
Norodom Sihanouk, politician: born Phnom Penh, French Indochina 31 October 1922; several wives and concubines and at least 14 children; died Beijing 15 October 2012.
King Norodom Sihanouk obituary
Cambodian monarch who offered the prospect of continuity, but subverted the growth of democracy
Cambodians valued King Norodom Sihanouk's warmth and his evident concern for his people, while recognising that he had made many mistakes. Photograph: Howard Sochurek/Time & Life Pictures/Getty
No monarch in modern times has embodied the life and fate of his country so completely as Norodom Sihanouk, who has died aged 89. He was king, then prince, then king again of Cambodia, amending his royal role according to the needs of the hour and his own volatile will. He was also a film-maker, journalist, editor and impresario as well as a leading, and often dominant, politician for more than 60 years.
He began adult life as a young king chosen by the French as a puppet. But, aided by the upsets of the second world war, he outfoxed the colonial power and led his country to independence. The epic tale continued as the prince protector shielded his people from the worst of the Vietnam wars, then as he held on through the dark years of usurpation and Khmer Rouge rule.
Cambodia returned to something resembling normal life, with Sihanouk once again on the throne. But his country's rehabilitation was terribly flawed, and until his abdication in 2004 he found himself presiding over a poor, corrupt and divided nation, ruled by a bizarre duopoly of enemies. Over the years he sometimes succeeded in using his power and influence to avert the worst. But this domineering, mischievous and hyperactive man was undoubtedly the part-author of his own and his country's misfortunes.
Sihanouk managed to keep his country out of the conflict between the Americans and the Vietnamese for many years. But he must also bear some of the responsibility for the tragedies that then overtook Cambodia as it was drawn into the war, suffered from massive American bombing, and fell under Khmer Rouge rule.
How much responsibility is the great question raised by his life. Some would say that he dominated Cambodian politics because the political class was untalented, shortsighted and faction-ridden, and, as far as the left was concerned, too influenced by inexperienced and mediocre intellectuals. When Sihanouk was removed in the 1970 coup, these vices came into full play, at first in the incompetent, corrupt and unrealistic rightwing regime of Lon Nol and then, devastatingly, in the incompetent, ruthless and even more unrealistic leftwing regime of Pol Pot.
Others have argued that the failings of the political class, left and right, were in part Sihanouk's handiwork, since he undermined every development that might have led to multi-party politics. In abandoning his policy of balance, he forced many of those on the left, who would otherwise have continued in conventional politics, into the jungle, where they joined the Khmer Rouge. And although he joined forces with the Khmer Rouge after the coup, he proved wholly unable to influence them or to protect his people from them.
Sihanouk was a man of eccentric charm. Journalists who visited Cambodia in the difficult final years of his personal rule, when he was trying to manipulate both the US and North Vietnam, came to relish his extraordinary performances at press conferences. He would read out press clippings in his high voice and follow up with a stream of jokes and imprecations. He was a great talker, but his assumption of expertise was often false.
Born into the royal family in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, Sihanouk received his early schooling at the main French lycée in the Vietnamese capital of Saigon. But he received no significant further formal training in political or military affairs, or in the artistic and scholarly pursuits in which he dabbled throughout his life, and for which he had some talent. Never subject to any discipline and never facing any serious criticism in his artistic endeavours, he remained, as some would say he did in politics, an egotistical if gifted amateur.
His early private life was flamboyant. During the 1940s and 50s he took at least six wives and consorts and fathered at least 14 children. The political management of such a large family, with its inevitable rivalries between different consorts and their sons, remained a problem for the rest of his life. Monique Izzi, daughter of an Italian father and a Cambodian mother, was his principal partner from the late 1950s.
The French – representing the Nazi-puppet Vichy regime – placed Sihanouk on the throne in 1941, setting aside more qualified candidates, including his own father. Sihanouk was 18, interested in football, jazz, riding, movies and girls. But an early sign that the French were mistaken about his pliability came after the Japanese ousted them in early 1945. Sihanouk followed the unavoidable, Japanese-managed proclamation of independence with laws reinstating the Khmer alphabet and calendar.
The French were soon back in charge and gave Cambodia a democratic constitution in 1947, reserving most power, however, for themselves. Sihanouk sometimes played the French game, as they had expected, but increasingly came to use French techniques of political manipulation on his own behalf rather than theirs.
He took the independence card from Cambodia's embryonic middle-class politicians, launching, in 1952, his own "royal crusade for independence". Aided by events in Vietnam, he effectively showed the French the door. In 1955 he abdicated in favour of his father. This shrewd move enabled him to avoid the constitutional problems of trying to be king and the country's leading politician at the same time. Yet as "monseigneur" – the head of state – he never lost his monarchical aura, and indeed continued to exploit it in full.
The great loss was that between 1947 and 1958 pluralist politics could have emerged in Cambodia around the middle-class Democratic party, but Sihanouk, with the French egging him on in the early years, seized every opportunity to undermine that party and eventually destroy it. Cambodia became a quasi-dictatorship and one-party state under Sihanouk and the Sangkum Reastr Niyum (Popular Socialist Community). Nor were his hands as clean as he liked to maintain. His regime killed, imprisoned and intimidated opponents – admittedly on a scale dwarfed by later excesses.
Sihanouk's peak years came between 1955 and 1962, when his touch was sure and his dominance nearly absolute. He picked the candidates for the national assembly in 1958 and 1962, and expertly managed the cabinets. By sudden changes of direction, he managed to throw his rivals and allies off balance. As soon as a cabinet was formed or an assembly had gathered, even though he had chosen them himself, he immediately undercut the strongest groups and individuals.
He had a sharp sense of the peasantry's needs and aspirations and continually played these off against the urban elite. On the radio, he endeared himself to rural folk with his jokes and rough language. He also gained popularity by a programme of school, road and factory building, though many of these ventures were ill-conceived.
In the 1960s Cambodia's international position deteriorated. Sihanouk resisted pressures from South Vietnam and Thailand, including at least one serious plot, which he characteristically used as the basis for a film, Storm Over Angkor. He tried to keep in with communist and western states and to play them off against each other.
But such tactics were less effective with outside powers than they were domestically. In 1963 he ended US military and economic aid. For the rest of that decade a gradual loss of his control was apparent. In Phnom Penh, a restive, rightwing elite was becoming impatient with his foreign manoeuvrings and resentful of his restrictions on their economic and political privileges. In the jungle, the North Vietnamese were more heavily ensconced, and a Khmer communist movement was growing up under their protection. Internationally, Sihanouk was never able to repair the rift with the US, despite efforts at the end of the decade. He grew visibly disheartened, turning for distraction to film-making and the entertainment of foreign guests. "It is almost as if he despaired of governing the country," David Chandler wrote in The Tragedy of Cambodian History (1991).
When the plot against him took shape in 1970, he was in France. He did not rush home, as he had done on other occasions when his position was threatened, but seemed to dawdle in Russia and China. The coup brought Cambodia into the Vietnam war, a conflict for which, in spite of the boasts of Lon Nol, the new leader, it was wholly unprepared. Sihanouk, encouraged by the Chinese, went into a united front with the Khmer communists.
He spent the five years of war that followed mainly in Beijing and the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, both governments providing him with lavish accommodation. He did make one trip to the Khmer Rouge zone of Cambodia with Monique, who wrote happily of the pleasant chalets prepared for them. But it was an alliance without warmth. After the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975, they discarded the united front, and Sihanouk was soon a prisoner in the royal palace. He could do nothing about the Khmer Rouge's terrible mismanagement of the country, with its hideous human consequences. Five of his children died during this period, and he was probably lucky to escape execution himself.
But after the Pol Pot regime provoked the Vietnamese into a full-scale invasion in 1979, Sihanouk again lined up behind the Khmer Rouge to oppose the occcupation and the Vietnamese-influenced communist regime of Heng Samrin. Apparently reckoning Vietnam to be a worse evil than the Khmer Rouge, he resisted occasional efforts by the Vietnamese to bring him over to their side. His decision helped to isolate the new regime, which, whatever its faults, had rescued Cambodia from a time of horror, and also contributed to the survival of the Khmer Rouge as a formidable force.
Many of Sihanouk's friends in the west found this course of action hard to accept. Had he made his peace with the new regime, he would have given it international respectability. That would have made it more difficult for the Khmer Rouge to win the foreign support they did. Western and Chinese policy was aimed at punishing Vietnam and cutting it down to size. The welfare of the Cambodian people was a lesser consideration for them, but ought not to have been for Sihanouk. However, the argument may overlook the deep-seated Cambodian fear of being absorbed by Vietnam, which Sihanouk certainly shared with his countrymen, including Lon Nol and Pol Pot.
With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, their ally and patron, the Vietnamese could no longer sustain their intervention in Cambodian affairs. They withdrew their troops in 1990, and in 1991 a Cambodia peace conference in Paris led to the installation of a temporary government consisting of the Cambodian People's party and the three opposition factions, with Sihanouk as head of state. UN forces were sent in to disarm the factions, UN officials to supervise elections, held in May 1993. They were won by the royalist party Funcinpec, which had been founded by Sihanouk in 1981 as a guerrilla movement, and the Cambodian People's party, now headed by HE and which had ruled in Pnomh Penh since the invasion in 1979. Funcinpec's success was undoubtedly due in large part to the still potent Sihanouk magic.
In June he was formally made head of state and in September restored as king. In spite of his age and ill health, he played politics with much of his old vigour, and often with no more sense of responsibility than before. Encouraged by HE, Sihanouk had suddenly proclaimed himself president, prime minister and commander-in-chief without consulting either the UN transitional authority or his son Ranariddh, leader of the royal party. The votes in the election were still being counted. It was an attempted coup that reminded those who knew him well of the high-handed tactics with which he had divided and ruled Cambodia in the past.
Sihanouk then played a leading part, along with the UN transitional authority, in persuading Ranariddh to form a joint government with HE. Ranariddh's party had won the election by a wide margin, and joint government represented a dismal conclusion to the democratisation effort. The country has never recovered from the consequences of this concession to HE's entrenched power. The two sides have not co-operated except in a wary sharing of the spoils of office and in making empty promises to the international donors whose aid keeps Cambodia going
Sihanouk had early on offered the Khmer Rouge cabinet posts in return for a ceasefire, amending this to advisory posts when it was pointed out that cabinet positions had to be filled by members of the assembly. He continued to pursue the idea of reconciliation with the Khmer Rouge, in spite of its record, perhaps on the principle that the more players are involved, the easier it is to manipulate them. Both HE and Ranariddh were soon vigorously pursuing reconciliation themselves: their competition for Khmer Rouge allies led to a coup by HE in 1997, of which Sihanouk initially seemed to approve.
His direct political influence, whether for good or ill, diminished as his health worsened, involving long absences from the country. But he displayed some of his old divide and surprise tactics when he insisted on abdicating in October 2004, forcing the government to form a royal throne council to approve his choice of Prince Norodom Sihamoni as his successor. In his remaining years, Sihanouk spent much time in China, where he died.
To Cambodians, Sihanouk represented continuity when so much in their country had been destroyed. They valued his warmth and his evident concern for his people, while recognising that he had made many mistakes. It was typical of Sihanouk that he started his own website, offering a running commentary on politics, by turn witty, acerbic or just dotty; and typical of Cambodians that the site attracted as many as 1,000 visits a day – a lot in a country of 13 million people with limited computer literacy.
Cambodia's extreme weakness – the mystery of how a power that once made all of south-east Asia tremble has fallen so low – has obsessed all its modern leaders and encouraged excessive and mystical solutions. Sihanouk, Lon Nol and Pol Pot all seemed to share the idea that there was some fount of strength and power to be found in the nation's traditions which, if tapped properly, would solve its problems.
Sihanouk saw it partly in his own person and in the monarchy: "I carry on my shoulders the overwhelming responsibilities of 16 centuries of royalty," he said in 1952. Lon Nol found it in the stars while Pol Pot and his associates believed that a total mobilisation of the population was the key. "If we can build Angkor, we can do anything," Pol Pot is supposed to have said – a sentiment all three men undoubtedly shared.
Sihanouk was a Cambodian patriot who lacked neither energy nor courage. He was also often a conniving, arbitrary ruler who can be accused of never allowing his country's politicians the time or the room to reach maturity. After the 1970 coup, Sihanouk was written off as a man who would never again play a significant role, but he remained an important figure. His return to the throne was a piece of theatre intended to reassure Cambodians that in his person, there was some kind of connection with a better past and therefore a bridge to a better future. His orchestration of the succession had the same end in mind. Whether such a continuity was really re-established remains to be seen.
• Norodom Sihanouk, monarch and statesman, born 31 October 1922; died 15 October 2012