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Between the tiger and the crocodile


In 2004, Público’s journalist Simone Duarte interviewed the king of Cambodia, while he was living in North Korea, for an independent documentary she made in the same year about Sérgio Vieira de Mello. This is the testimony of an encounter with an Asian monarch who has left his mark in the 20th century.

“My suffering was second only to that of Jesus Christ”: this statement by the then king of Cambodia Norodon Sihanouk during a nearly four-hour long interview reveals part of the personality of one of the most eccentric, charismatic and enigmatic leaders of the 20th century, who died last Monday, at the age of 89.

It was April 2004. We were in a palace waiting for a king. It was raining outside. We had already been cleared by the equipment-sniffing dogs and security guards. Norodon Sihanouk hadn’t just opened the gates to the palace for us; he had opened the North Korean border, the most closed off country in the world. He wanted to talk about a dearly departed friend.

It was like a movie. We were making one. And cinema had always been one of Sihanouk’s passions – he directed over 30 movies. That’s what had brought him close to Kim Il Sung when they were both young men. This friendship meant that North Korea’s founder given as a present to the king, this palace in the outskirts of Pyongyang, where we had now been for over an hour, joined by five or six royal staff members, who were setting up the scene. In one of the rooms, bigger than an Olympic swimming pool, we were trying to comply with the request from this king worshipped by Cambodians: he wanted the painting of his mother’s face to hang over the pink armchair where he insisted on sitting for the interview.

“My mother was an astrologist,” a remarkably thin voice would later tell me with a smile on his lips. “In Cambodia, many people can tell you your future, your destiny.” I wonder if his mother read in the stars the fate of the prince who became king at 18 and who, for the next six decades, would shape the history of his country and Southeast Asia?

“I’m a Scorpio, like De Gaulle [he was mistaken]. I prefer to write and sing my music softly” – and here he was clearly referring to politics. He had composed nearly all of the soundtracks to his movies. But he also enjoyed talking. For nearly four hours. It was almost a monologue. And he’d already said during a trip to Paris in the 1990s, quoted by French newspaper Le Monde: “I’m more Gaullist than the Gaullists.” He had received his education in French, between Saigon, the capital of French Indochina, and Paris. It was also France who put him on the throne of Cambodia, which was then part of Indochina, as an easily manipulated puppet. But it would be him, 12 years later, who would secure Cambodia’s independence.

In 1941, he became king. In 1953, he conquered independence. In 1955, he stepped down, and took on the roles of Prime-Minister and Foreign Minister. In 1960, when his father died, he became king once more. In 1970, he was deposed in a coup led by general Lon Nol and supported by the United States. In 1975, he returned as king of Cambodia – this time as a puppet for the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot’s bloodthirsty communist regime. He was kept a prisoner in his own palace for four years. In 1979, he was exiled in China to escape the Vietnamese occupation. In 1991, he returned to his country to play a vital role in the first free elections since the end of Khmer Rouge regime, and in the repatriation of Cambodians from neighboring Thailand, after 13 years of civil war. In 2004, he stepped down in favor of his son.

“What other 20th-century stateman has played so many different roles while remaining the movie’s protagonist?”, asked Jean-Claude Pomonti in Le Monde this past Monday.

“If I were born again, I would like to be a teacher” – he smiles. “I’m not like the Japanese royal princes, who don’t feel the need to get involved in politics. Should the people be the ones to get involved in politics? But what can I do if this is how I was born? I was born to do politics. It’s dictated by astrology.”

A pact with the devil

Seductive, egocentric. Diplomat. Strategist. Manipulated or manipulative? “My people have a saying that life is made of deals. We must choose between being eaten by the tiger or the crocodile. It’s a terrible choice, as we’ll get eaten anyway.”

For many historians and critics of Sihanouk, his biggest mistake was making a pact with the devil, to have supported Pol Pot when he was still in exile in China. The Chinese didn’t leave him any other choice. In 1970, he had supported the Khmer Rouge leader. It was “Big Brother” Pol Pot who brought him back as king and head of state, and who turned Cambodia into an enormous death camp with the implementation of Year Zero and the genocide of nearly two million Cambodians in four years. They died of starvation, fatigue and torture, or were executed.

“If I have to go before the UN International Court [at the time we spoke, the International Court for the crimes under Pol Pot’s regime hadn’t yet been created] I will prove everything. I didn’t help them while I was in China, as they accuse me of. I was not an accomplice to the Khmer Rouge. Sihanouk was not the Khmer Rouge’s ally. I can show the documents in court, all the necessary documents that prove I founded the National United Front of Kampuchea [a group that helped to defeat the Khmer Rouge]. I brought the resistance together.”

“An unbearable weight”

And, at this point, the interview becomes a monologue.

King Sihanouk from Cambodia, in Pyongyang, after a four-hour interview

King Sihanouk from Cambodia, in Pyongyang, after a four-hour interview

“Let’s talk about the genocide. The Chinese advised the Khmer Rouge to keep me as head of state. I never saw the death camps. I knew that my people had been deprived of their freedom and had become slaves. The Khmer Rouge begged me to stay on as head of State, and I refused. But I didn’t know about the death camps. The Khmer Rouge killed five of my children and [14] grandchildren. I was a prisoner in Phnom Penh’s palace for four years. A prisoner in my own palace. I couldn’t help my people. I’ve told you my story with the Khmer Rouge. Have you seen Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ? My suffering was second only to that of Jesus Christ. In fact, I have Buddha and the image of Christ in my chapel. I will go before the court, and I will let them condemn or forgive me, as they see fit.”

The king never did go before the court. He spent his last years battling cancer, a disease which began to manifest itself in the 1990s and which led him to countless hospital visits and treatments in Beijing. At his website (yes, Sihanouk was one of the first monarchs to embrace the Internet), he reflected on his illness, wrote poems and press reviews, and shared cooking recipes from his aunt. In October 2009, he wrote that he was not going to live much longer and that he longed for death: “This longevity weighs on me. It’s an unbearable weight.”

Five years before, it was the death of Sérgio Vieira de Mello – the UN special representative for East Timor and Iraq who was killed, in 2003, in the bombing against the organization’s headquarters in Baghdad – who had made him open the doors to North Korea to take part in the independent documentary we were making about Vieira de Mello. Sérgio Vieira de Mello and the king had become friends during the repatriation of Cambodians after over a decade of civil war and the peace deals celebrated in Paris in 1991. The beloved king had been crucial in helping Sérgio Vieira de Mello repatriate 300 thousand people in time for the elections – a mission which had been deemed impossible at the time.

For Vieira de Mello, Sihanouk would always be remembered as one of the founders of the non-aligned countries movement which emerged in the 1950s, when the world was divided between two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union.

For the king’s official biographer, Chilean Julio A. Jedres, Sihanouk will always be a misunderstood monarch who truly cared about his people. Jedres maintains that Sihanouk did not align with the Khmer Rouge in 1970, nor collaborate with them in the 1980s.

For journalist Bernard Hamel, author of Sihanouk et le Drame Cambodgien [Sihanouk and the Cambodian Drama], Sihanouk’s political ambiguity and dangerous alliances led to the Cambodian tragedy.

For me, it’s the memory of an extraordinary encounter and three days. Days which would not have taken place if a king had not really wanted to be in a movie about a loved one.

For many, Cambodia is him. For Norodon Sihanouk Varmam, he was the king eaten by both the tiger and the crocodile.