Friday, June 28, 2013

The Cambodian Royal Chronicle

92) King Norodom Sihanouk

(1st reign 1941--1955, Capital: Phnom Penh)
King Norodom Sihanouk was the son of Prince Norodom Suramarit and Princess Sisowath Kossamak. Both of his parents were third cousins. Thus, King Sihanouk was the great, great grandchild of King Ang Duong, the man who put Cambodia under the French protection and averted a possible Siam-Vietnamese elimination of the Khmer Kingdom.

After the death of King Sisowath Monivong, King Sihanouk’s grandfather, the royal council agreed to ascend King Sihanouk to the throne in 1941. At the time, Cambodia was still a French colony. However, the breakout of World War II in 1939 had traumatically changed the course of world history. The Germans had overtaken France, and, by 1945, the Japanese had also taken over the French colonies in Indochinese Peninsula. After the takeover, Japan had given independence to all the former French colony-countries. But the independence was short-lived. After the defeats of Germany and Japan, the main World War II’s antagonists, the French had returned to re-establish its colonies over Indochinese Peninsula. However, the taste of a short-lived independence had eventually made the colonized people increasingly resentful of the French rule. Thus, in 1949, the French was obliged to sign an agreement giving its former colonies quasi-independence by making them form a Federation of French Indochina with a common currency.

In 1953, King Norodom Sihanouk embarked on a royal crusade on the international arena in order to demand complete independence from France. After returning to Cambodia, he introduced a plan, appropriately called the Sihanouk Plan, by organizing non-violent mass struggle, similar to that of Mohandas Gandhi’s movement in India, against France’s rule. The crusade and the plan eventually pressured the French to grant complete independence to Cambodia in 1954.

King Sihanouk was a charismatic and populist leader. He was also a Machiavellian1 ruler who could be both benevolent and ruthless. To his supporters, he was Father of the Cambodian Independence, warrior, and champion of many causes. However, to his critics, King Sihanouk was nothing but a mercurial ruler, feisty leader, and a dictator who was ruthless to both his friends and foes who dared to voice their opinions against his.

Despite his political absolutism, King Sihanouk had made a number of noticeable accomplishments. During his reign, he had created a national welfare and relief systems to help alleviate the plight of poor people and those who suffered from natural disaster. He had also donated his personal finance to help build a number of schools such as Sihanouk High School in Kompong Cham, Suryavarman II Middle School in Siem Reap, and the Buddhist College in Phnom Penh. In addition to the building of national infrastructure, King Sihanouk had also encouraged the government to give scholarship to Cambodian students to study abroad. All in all, King Sihanouk had done an admirable job during his first reign. Perhaps most admirable of all was the introduction of a constitution giving limited democracy to the people of Cambodia who, for the first time in ages, had been exposed to the novelty of voting.

In 1955, after 13 years of ruling, King Sihanouk abdicated in favor of his father as he (Sihanouk) was preparing to lead a political party called the Sangkum Reastr Niyum in a national election.

93) King Norodom Suramarit
(1955--1960, Capital: Phnom Penh)
King Norodom Suramarit was the father of King Norodom Sihanouk. He succeeded the throne in 1955 after the abdication of his son. During his reign, Cambodia had enjoyed a relatively peaceful and tranquil existence.

After almost 100 years under French rule, the Khmer Kingdom was once again free from outside influence. However, the introduction of democracy and voting had nevertheless stirred tremendous political passion throughout the country. The students and former students who had been studying abroad and exposed to the concept of liberal democracy began to question and challenge the existing ruler, namely the monarch. Thus, throughout King Suramarit’s reign, Cambodia was mired in political struggle between the needs for greater freedom for the people and the monarch’s retaining of absolute power. King Norodom Suramarit died in 1960.

94) Prince Norodom Sihanouk/Queen Sisowath Kossamak
(Ruling as Chief of State, 1960--1970, Capital: Phnom Penh)
After King Suramarit’s death, Cambodia had fallen into what could be called a constitutional crisis. The problem derived largely from Prince Sihanouk’s unwillingness to name a successor to the throne, for he feared that it would jeopardize his consolidation of power in Cambodia.

Since the inception of a constitution in 1947, the center of governmental power in Cambodia began to move from the hands of the monarch to the National Assembly. The king would only reign but no longer rule. It was this shift that led to King Sihanouk’s abdication in 1955 in favor of his father, King Suramarit, so that he could free himself from the constraint of monarchy and be able to contest in the national elections which was, needless to say, farces that served his interests.

Now that the king was dead, the need to ascend a new king to the throne was paramount because it would make no sense for a kingdom without a king. As a requirement, once the king died, the Royal Council which was composed of a senior member of the royal family, the prime minister, the presidents of the two houses of the National Assembly, and the heads of the two Buddhist orders was to convene and name a successor. But the process was put to a halt when Prince Sihanouk, who was prime minister at the time, opposed to naming a successor. Thus, a special Bill was rushed through the National Assembly to create a Regency Council which was to represent the throne but to have no executive power.

After the creation of the Regency Council, Prince Sihanouk then resigned as prime minister and initiated a referendum to seek popular support for his idea of not naming a successor to the throne. In his campaign, he argued that the royal institution was full of corruption and decadence, which needed to be reformed. His proposal for reform was to have a popularly elected ruler who would be neither king, nor prime minister, nor president, but a leader who represented the general will of the people and the kingdom. With this proposed reform set in motion, a nationwide referendum was held and Prince Sihanouk was elected to become Cambodian ruler as chief of state. As chief of state, Sihanouk would neither be king, nor prime minister, nor president, but the combination of them all. He was to represent the throne as well as the government and everything else in between. In order to legitimize this new position, the National Assembly hastily added amendments to the constitution recognizing as chief of state a person who was “incontestably and expressly designated by the vote of the nation”. With this successful reform, Prince Sihanouk had accomplished what amounted to a constitutional coup d’etat. In a sense, he had established an absolute ruler behind the veil of democracy and without having to become a king. After accepting his new role as chief of state, Prince Sihanouk asked the ever-compliant National Assembly to recognize his mother, Queen Kossamak, as symbolic representative of the throne.

As chief of state, Prince Sihanouk’s rule was marred with political crises and violence. Domestically, political factionalism had created tremendous fracture within the government. Both right-wing conservative and left-wing communist inspired politicians were increasingly alienated toward his one-man policy and rule. Internationally, the pro-American governments of then South Vietnam and Thailand had also been increasingly critical of Sihanouk’s neutral policy, which appeared to be biased toward the communist camp. As a result, tensions and hostilities began to emerge and threaten Cambodia’s stability. In response to these crises, Prince Sihanouk embarked on a violent and ruthless campaign against anyone who opposed his rule or linked to the Thai-South Vietnamese-support Khmer Serei’s (Free Khmer) movement led by a man named Son Ngoc Thanh. As the tension grew, a rebellion broke out in 1967 at Samlaut village located at the northwestern corner of the kingdom in Battambang province. The rebellion was successfully quelled by Prince Sihanouk and his army, and a number of people who were suspected or believed to be rebels were mercilessly killed.

After the Samlaut Rebellion, Prince Sihanouk began to intensify his violent campaign against his opponents. Anyone who was suspected of rebellious activities or openly questioned and challenged his policy or rule was brutally persecuted or killed. This heavy-handed totalitarian policy eventually led to further deterioration within the government. Many left-wing communist-oriented politicians began to secretly go underground and form clandestine resistance to overthrow his government while a number of right-wing conservative politicians were planning to remove him from power in a coup d’etat. Thus, Prince Sihanouk’s fate as the chief of state was sealed when, in early 1970, his cousin, Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak, colluded with his defense minister, General Lon Nol, to overthrow him in a mildly violent coup d’etat. Prince Sihanouk was on a routine trip to France for medical check up when the coup d’etat against him broke out. He was condemned to death by the coup’s instigators and, eventually, went into exile in China where he became a figurehead leader of the communist-oriented revolutionary movement led by a man named Pol Pot (a.k.a. Saloth Sar) who was waging war against the newly formed Lon Nol’s government.
(To be continued)

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