Born October 31, 1922
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Cambodian monarch and political leader
Norodom Sihanouk has been an important figure in Cambodia through six decades of war and political instability. He first became the king of Cambodia in 1941, when his country was a colony of France. After participating in the movement to gain Cambodia's independence from French rule, he stepped down from the throne to become president in 1955. Over the next fifteen years, Sihanouk struggled to maintain his country's neutrality as war raged in neighboring Vietnam. During this time, a group of Communist revolutionaries known as the Khmer Rouge emerged to oppose his rule.
In 1970 Sihanouk was removed from power by his prime minister, Lon Nol (see entry). He then went into exile in China and joined forces with his former enemies, the Khmer Rouge. He became the symbolic head of state when the brutal Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia in 1975, but returned to exile when Cambodia was conquered by Vietnam four years later. In 1993 the still-popular Sihanouk returned to the Cambodian government following United Nations-sponsored elections.
A member of Cambodia's royal family
Norodom Sihanouk was born on October 31, 1922, in Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. As the oldest of four children born to Prince Norodom Suramarit and Princess Monivong Kossamak, he came from a royal family that had ruled Cambodia for a more than a century. Sihanouk was educated in French schools in Saigon, Vietnam. He was also trained in music by his parents and eventually became quite skilled at playing the saxophone.
Throughout Sihanouk's early life, Cambodia—like its neighbor Vietnam—was a colony of France. In 1941 the French colonial government asked Sihanouk to become king of Cambodia. At this time, Sihanouk was eighteen years old and in his last year of school. French officials selected him to lead the colony because they thought he would be easy to control. A short time later, however, France suffered a series of defeats during World War II and surrendered to Germany. Unable to protect its colonies in Indochina, the French allowed Japan to occupy Cambodia and set up military bases there.
In 1945 the Allied forces (led by the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union) defeated both Germany and Japan to win World War II (1939–45). As the Japanese pulled out of Indochina, Sihanouk took advantage of the situation to declare Cambodia's independence. But it soon became clear that France was not willing to give up its former colonies. In Vietnam, a group of Communist-led Vietnamese nationalists known as the Viet Minh began fighting the French to gain their country's independence. In the meantime, Sihanouk reached an uneasy agreement with French officials that prevented war in his country. But he eventually realized that achieving Cambodia's true independence was a key factor in his own power and popularity. In 1953 the king traveled to France to demand self-government for his country. When the French refused, Sihanouk went into exile in Thailand as a form of protest.
In 1954 the Viet Minh defeated the French after nine years of war. The agreement that ended this war divided Vietnam into two sections, Communist-led North Vietnam and U.S.-supported South Vietnam. At the same time, France granted independence to all of its colonies in Indochina, including Cambodia. Sihanouk immediately returned home. Determined to play an active role in leading his newly independent country, he gave up his throne in order to run for elected office. Sihanouk was elected president of Cambodia in 1955, while members of his political party won all the seats in the National Assembly. This meant that Sihanouk effectively controlled the Cambodian government, even though he was no longer king. He was particularly popular among peasants, who viewed him as a beloved symbol of the country, but he was less well-liked among educated citizens and Communists.
Remains neutral during the Vietnam War
During his early years in office, Sihanouk accepted military and economic aid from the United States. He also took steps to modernize Cambodia's agricultural economy. But as time passed, Cambodia became threatened by a new war that had broken out in Vietnam. This war pitted North Vietnam and its secret allies, the South Vietnamese Communists known as the Viet Cong, against South Vietnam. North Vietnam wanted to overthrow the South Vietnamese government and reunite the two countries under one Communist government. But U.S. government officials worried that a Communist government in Vietnam would encourage other countries in Indochina to adopt communism. They felt that this would increase the power of Communist China and the Soviet Union and threaten the security of the United States.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s the U.S. government sent money, weapons, and military advisors to help South Vietnam defend itself against North Vietnam and the Viet Cong. Sihanouk declared that Cambodia would remain neutral, or refuse to take sides, in the conflict. In 1965 President Lyndon Johnson (see entry) sent American combat troops to join the fight on the side of South Vietnam. At this point, Sihanouk began to worry that increased U.S. involvement would expand the war into Cambodia. He decided to cut off diplomatic ties with the United States. Before long, Sihanouk's fears came true. The intense fighting with American troops encouraged the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces to move their base of operations across the border into eastern Cambodia.
Still determined to stay out of the war, Sihanouk reluctantly allowed the Communist forces to enter his country. As the Vietnam War progressed, the jungles of Cambodia became an important base for Vietnamese Communist activity. Many of North Vietnam's main supply routes and military roads—including the famous Ho Chi Minh Trail—ran through eastern Cambodia. In addition, many Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) units used the thick forests of Cambodia for secret bases in their war against the South.
By the late 1960s the war in Vietnam had caused severe economic hardship and growing political unrest in Cambodia. A group of Cambodian Communists known as the Khmer Rouge, under the command of a mysterious man named Pol Pot (see entry), began plotting an armed revolution against Sihanouk's government. North Vietnam provided significant assistance to the Khmer Rouge rebels. To increase his hold on power, Sihanouk reorganized the government and made his trusted advisor Lon Nol the prime minister. Together, they began working to remove the Vietnamese Communists from Cambodia.
In 1969 Sihanouk reestablished ties with the United States and allowed American forces to begin bombing Viet Cong and North Vietnamese bases along the border. But the bombing only pushed the Vietnamese Communists deeper into Cambodian territory. In addition, it caused suffering among the Cambodian people and convinced thousands of peasants that the government could not protect them. Many of these people turned their support to the Khmer Rouge. Lon Nol urged Sihanouk to increase the size of the Cambodian army in order to fight the North Vietnamese and crush the Khmer Rouge rebellion, but Sihanouk refused. He believed that such actions would only draw Cambodia deeper into the Vietnam War.
Sihanouk is removed from power
In March 1970 Sihanouk visited France. During his absence, a group of Cambodian leaders who were unhappy with his government made plans to overthrow him. Prime Minister Lon Nol and Deputy Prime Minister Sisowath Sirik Matak were among those involved in the plan. The Cambodian National Assembly voted to remove Sihanouk from power and make Lon Nol the new head of the government. Knowing that Lon Nol wanted to force the Vietnamese Communists out of Cambodia, U.S. officials backed him as the country's new leader. Sihanouk viewed the American support for Lon Nol as a betrayal. In fact, he claimed that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had helped his enemies remove him from power.
After losing control of the government, Sihanouk moved to China, where he met with Vietnamese and Cambodian Communist leaders. He proclaimed himself the leader of Cambodia's "government in exile." He also agreed to join forces with his former enemies, the Khmer Rouge, in their efforts to overthrow Lon Nol's government. Over the next few years, the Khmer Rouge continued to gather support from people who were upset over the country's involvement in the Vietnam War. With Sihanouk's support, the rebel group emerged as a legitimate political alternative to Lon Nol. The Khmer Rouge increased its size and strength and managed to defeat the Cambodian military in a series of battles. Lon Nol's hold on power only grew weaker when the U.S. government withdrew its troops from Indochina in 1973.
Finally, on April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh and took control of Cambodia. The Communists named Sihanouk as the symbolic leader of the country, although he held no real power. Two weeks later, North Vietnamese forces captured the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon to win the Vietnam War.
Immediately after taking power, the Khmer Rouge launched a brutal program designed to transform Cambodia into a simple farming society. As part of this transformation, the Khmer Rouge murdered hundreds of thousands of Cambodian citizens in an effort to rid the country of "intellectuals" who opposed their rule. Historians estimate that as many as two million Cambodians—or one-fourth of the overall population—died under the Khmer Rouge.
During this time, Cambodia was still involved in disputes with Vietnam over national borders and leadership of Indochina. In December 1978 the Vietnamese government sent troops into Cambodia to overthrow the Khmer Rouge. By January 1979 Vietnam's invasion forces had captured Phnom Penh. They immediately put an end to the brutal policies of the Khmer Rouge. At this time, Sihanouk appealed to the Vietnamese to allow him to form a coalition government in Cambodia. Instead, the occupation forces established a new pro-Vietnamese government under Prime Minister Hun Sen. When his efforts failed, Sihanouk returned to China and formed another government in exile that included Khmer Rouge representatives.
Even though the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia had removed the violent Khmer Rouge from power, many countries around the world criticized Vietnam's actions. The United States and other countries formed an economic embargo to punish Vietnam. The U.S. government also provided support to Cambodian rebels fighting against the Hun Sen government, including the Khmer Rouge. Finally, both the United States and the United Nations formally recognized Sihanouk's coalition government as the legitimate rulers of Cambodia.
Returns to lead Cambodia
Despite the international reaction, Vietnam continued its occupation of Cambodia for ten years before withdrawing its forces in 1989. At this time, the United Nations stepped in to negotiate a settlement between the Khmer Rouge rebels and various other political parties. The UN arranged for national elections to choose a democratic government for Cambodia. Realizing that he would never win an election, Hun Sen agreed to turn over power to Sihanouk in 1991. After many years in exile, Sihanouk remained popular among the Cambodian people. In fact, many citizens considered him the "father of the nation."
After being named president once again in 1991, Sihanouk turned against the Khmer Rouge. He criticized the rebel group's leaders and said that they should be put on trial for war crimes. The Khmer Rouge gradually became a fringe movement and split into competing factions. In the UN-sponsored elections of 1993 Sihanouk's political party formally took control of the government. In September of that year Sihanouk was once again crowned king of Cambodia. He turned the everyday duties of running the country over to his two prime ministers, his son Norodom Ranariddh and former president Hun Sen. In 1997, however, fighting broke out between rival political factions that were loyal to the two prime ministers. Hun Sen managed to remove Norodom Ranariddh from power that July. Since then, Sihanouk has held little formal political power in Cambodia. In 1999 he announced that he would soon step down from the throne due to failing health.
Throughout his leadership of Cambodia, Sihanouk became known for his unusual behavior. For example, as an amateur film-maker and songwriter, he sometimes handed out cassettes of his songs at United Nations meetings or made international advisors watch his feature films. He has also been known to consult astrologers before making important decisions and to suddenly become ill in times of crisis. Still, he remains popular among the Cambodian people.
Armstrong, John P. Sihanouk Speaks. New York: Walker, 1965.
Encyclopedia of World Biography. Detroit: Gale, 1998.
Kamm, Henry. Cambodia: Report from a Stricken Land. New York: Arcade Publishing, 1998.
Osborne, Milton E. Sihanouk: Prince of Light, Prince of Darkness. University of Hawaii Press, 1994.
Sihanouk, Norodom, with Wilfred Burchett. My War with the CIA: The Memoirs of Prince Norodom Sihanouk. New York: Pantheon, 1973.