The news of the death of Cambodia's Norodom Sihanouk, the country's 'King Father', brings to an end one of the most remarkable lives among the Asian political leaders who emerged into prominence following the Second World War. Born in 1922, he would have turned 90 at the end of this month. Throughout his life he was a figure of interest far beyond Cambodia for his political skills and his sometimes flamboyant personal life.
The spearhead of Cambodia's successful campaign to gain independence from France in 1953, he dominated Cambodian political life in the following decade, before changing circumstances undermined his position. When he was thrown out of office by his closest associates in March 1970 he chose to align himself with the Cambodian communists, the Khmer Rouge, whom he had previously regarded as his bitter enemies.
While he may have hoped that the victory of the Khmer Rouge in April 1975 would offer him a real role in the government of Cambodia, it quickly became clear that his communist allies had no intention of permitting this, and for most of the Pol Pot period (1975-79) Sihanouk was effectively a prisoner under house arrest.
After the ouster of the Khmer Rouge regime and the civil war that lasted through the 1980s, Sihanouk had an ambiguous role while the Khmer Rouge remained as the main military opponents of the Vietnamese forces occupying Cambodia. His contribution to the 1991 settlement of 'The Cambodia Problem' was real, and he rejoiced in the fact that in 1993 he was once again placed on the throne of Cambodia.
It soon became clear, however, that he could no longer exercise the power that once had been at his command. Increasingly he was frustrated by the extent to which he was overshadowed by Prime Minister Hun Sen, and in 2004 he abdicated in favour of his son, Norodom Sihamoni. As well as reflecting his frustration, it seems fair to conclude that Sihanouk's decision was taken in part to ensure the monarchy's survival.
Sihanouk's death will be greeted with genuine grief in Cambodia, particularly among the peasantry, but it is worth remembering that the bulk of the population has no personal memory of his years of greatest achievement. That said, there is no doubt that the Sihanouk years – or 'Sihanouk time' as they are often spoken of in Cambodia – will be looked back on as a kind of golden age. Despite their often difficult relations in the past, it can be expected that Hun Sen will heap praise on the former ruler.
What will Sihanouk's death mean for the survival of the Cambodian monarchy? There is no reason to expect that Hun Sen will act against the monarchy in its present form, despite his occasional highly critical comments on some members of the Cambodian royal family. King Sihamoni has followed a strictly correct role as king without any hint of involvement in political issues. He is relatively young (aged 59) and in good health, and could remain on the throne for many years to come. While he is unmarried and has no children, this does not threaten the succession because Cambodia's constitution provides for an elective monarchy drawn from descendants of the 19th century monarch, King Ang Duang.
Distant as he has been from Cambodian politics for the last few years, residing in Beijing for most of this time, Sihanouk's death represents an end of an era and the passage of a remarkable survivor.
Photo UN Photo.