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A Brilliant Sort of Madness

Books by Norodom Sihanouk My War with the CIA
The Memoirs of Prince Norodom Sihanouk as related to Wilfred Burchett
Pantheon Books, 1972, 1973

War and Hope: The Case for Cambodia
Norodom Sihanouk
Pantheon Books, 1980

For more than half a century, King Norodom Sihanouk has preened, postured, and pouted across the stage of Cambodian politics. He is perpetually described as "mercurial" and "unpredictable." For years he was central to Cambodia's survival. And he was just as surely central to her near-destruction.

To give him due credit: It is beyond question that Sihanouk deeply loved the Cambodian people. None of his successors has ever matched his genuine affection for his people. But Sihanouk had one critical flaw: as much as he loved the Cambodian people, he loved himself just slightly more. At a pivotal moment in Cambodian history, he chose his own interests above those of Cambodia, and millions of people paid with their lives.

Born on October 31, 1922, Norodom Sihanouk was appointed to the Cambodian throne by the country's French colonial masters at the age of 18. The French probably chose Sihanouk for at least two reasons: first, he was descended from both of Cambodia's two competing royal families; and second, they believed that the young playboy would be easily manipulated. This second belief turned out to be very wrong: Sihanouk quickly demonstrated surprising political savvy, and by 1953 he had skillfully orchestrated his country's independence from France. In 1955, he shrewdly abdicated in favor of his father, then ran for the office of Prime Minister as the head of his own political party. Against the backdrop of a widening war in Indochina, Sihanouk remained the unquestioned leader of the country for the next fifteen years. In 1970, however, Sihanouk was overthrown in a coup led by two of his lieutenants, General Lon Nol and Prince Sirik Matak.

It is hard to imagine how different history might have been if Sihanouk had responded differently to the coup. Perhaps it would not have mattered; perhaps the forces at war in Indochina would have devastated Cambodia, with or without Sihanouk. But we will never know, for at that critical moment, Sihanouk chose to support the Khmer Rouge. Sihanouk's support was the engine that sparked the explosive growth of the Khmer Rouge. And it would be the Khmer Rouge who would drive Cambodia to the brink of annhilation.

Sihanouk wrote two books which allow us to glimpse history from his perspective. Both books are flawed and sometimes frustrating, but they are worth reading nonetheless.

My War with the CIA is Sihanouk's first memoir. It is essentially a propaganda tract. At times, Sihanouk's disingenuousness is almost embarrassingly transparent, as when he refers to the repression of the left during his own regime as the work of "Lon Nol's raiding expeditions." He is similarly unconvincing when he attempts to explain away his public statements regarding the leftists: "To throw my own dissenters - rightists such as Lon Nol - off the track, I occasionally made speeches attacking the Vietminh, Vietcong and Khmers Rouges. The first two realized that the main thing was my unswerving political, diplomatic and material support of their resistance struggle. But I did not know at the time that the Khmers Rouges had also understood this. The proof was their immediate acceptance of the alliance for resistance in 1970."

Clearly, the real reason the Khmer Rouge immediately accepted his "alliance" was that they, like the Prince, understood the value of a marriage of expediancy. The Prince's name gave their movement a legitimacy that it would otherwise have lacked.

Still, although My War is very obviously a book with an agenda, there are times when Sihanouk's comments seem precisely on-target, as when he discusses Richard Nixon's comments on the invasion of Cambodia:

"President Nixon has explained that the 341 million dollars spent annually in the officially-approved slaughter of Cambodians is 'the best investment in foreign assistance that the United States has made in my political life'. Because of the 'success' of the Cambodian operation, 'US casualties have been cut by two thirds, a hundred thousand Americans have come home and more are doing so'. In other words, Lon Nol and Sirik Matak, by allowing Nixon to export the fighting from South Vietnam to Cambodia - to substitute Cambodian for American and South Vietnamese corpses - have rendered a valuable service, for which 341 million dollars is a reasonable annual reimbursement!"

Sihanouk goes on to quote George McGovern's rather astute assessment of the so-called "Nixon Doctrine": "We pay them for killing each other while we reduce our own forces."

From time to time there are telling glimpses into Sihanouk's true beliefs. Sihanouk notes that during the early Fifties he feared that "the Vietminh were fighting only to replace the French as masters in Cambodia." Having aligned himself with the Communists at the time of the book's publication, he naturally disavows this belief. That fear that would resurface in his second book.

There is disappointingly little of the Prince's personality in the bland prose of this book. It is as though the the demands of ideology have smothered his very spirit. There is, however, one very memorable passage, in which the Prince relates an incident during the ceremony which marked the Cambodia's independence from the French:

"When it came to the formal handing-over of powers, it was with my respected former cavalry instructor, General de Langlade, that I had to deal.

'Sire,' he said, 'You have whipped me.'

'Mon general, it is not true,' I replied. 'But I had to show myself worthy of General de Langlade's education. My success is yours, as it is you who taught me what I know of military science.'

'You are not very kind to your professor,' he continued.

'Mon general,' I said, 'I had to prove myself, as one of your pupils. I could not lose so vital a battle, with my country at stake.'

On the eve of the French departure, one of his staff officers whispered to de Langlade: 'The King is mad! He expels us from Cambodia, but without us he will be crushed by the Vietminh!'

De Langlade turned to him and other officers and replied: 'Gentlemen, the King may be mad, but it is a brilliant sort of madness!'"

Brilliant madness: a wily monarch, tragically flawed. An undercurrent of Sihanouk's critical failing - his vanity - shows through on many occasions. One comes away from My War with the sense that Sihanouk was obsessed with his own stature. Again and again he rails against "humiliating discourtesies" (p. 86), "bad manners" (p.87), "humiliations that had lasted so long" (p. 128), "shame and frustration" (p. 129), "being punished, humiliated, and prepared for the chopping block" (p. 130), "national humiliation" (p.133), "indignities and humiliations" (p. 148), "the humiliation" (p. 222) "We have suffered too much; we have been humiliated too long." (p. 234).

With the disastrous reign of the Khmer Rouge long ago relegated to "the ash heap of history", it is almost painful to review the book's final chapter. Its title is "The Future," and it outlines the supposed future policies of rebel regime. To read these words today is to feel a horrible sadness. One can only imagine how it must feel to be the person who wrote them.

"In its relations with the outside world, Cambodia will thus remain much as it was before; friendly with all countries that respect our independence and sovereignty...

"Our internal policy will be socialist and progressive, but not communist. State, state-private, and private enterprise will coexist..."

"I do not know about Europe, with its own traditions and concepts, but I feel that, for Asia, the commune is a real discovery..."

These and other similar statements leave the reader longing for the safety of the old, familiar delusions about the utopian future. The true nature of Khmer Rouge policies - the xenophobia, the extremism, the labor brigades, the executions, the starvation - would soon be beyond dispute.

In My War Sihanouk reminds us of a statement that he made in 1955, at the time of his abdication: "I categorically refuse to return to the throne no matter what the turn of events." This statement, like so many of Sihanouk's pronouncements, would be reversed by time and fate and whim. What the Khmer Rouge called "the Wheel of History" would soon crush Lon Nol. Then, just as surely, it crushed the Khmer Rouge as well. And yet Sihanouk himself somehow escaped. Effectively imprisoned in his palace throughout most the the Khmer Rouge reign, Sihanouk was spirited out of the country just ahead of the Vietnamese invasion. Written in the aftermath of disaster, Sihanouk's second memoir, War and Hope: The Case for Cambodia bears little resemblence to its predecessor. By 1979, when the book was written, Cambodia was in ruins.

It would be a stretch to describe War and Hope as a completely honest memoir, but it is at least more realistic than the volume that preceeded it. One wonders if Sihanouk's experience with the Khmer Rouge left him somewhat chastized. It's doubtful if he ever believed the Khmer Rouge propaganda about their aims, and with the benefit of hindsight he seems to have come to understand the futility of his earlier charade. "Time will inevitably uncover dishonesty and lies; history has no place for them," he writes.

It is in the name of this honesty that Sihanouk discusses the role of the Vietnamese in fighting the Lon Nol regime. The Vietnamese, he notes, were the architects of some of the most spectacular acts of sabotage that crippled the Khmer Republic: the destruction of much of Pochentong airport, the oil refinery at Kompong Som, and the Chroy Chungwa bridge in Phnom Penh. The Khmer Rouge, by contrast, had no effective artillery at all; they relied heavily on rockets, and "they did not hit one of their military objectives. Instead, residential neighborhoods of no military interest were bombed, markets and schools were destroyed, children and innocent adults were killed or hideously wounded - all for nothing." Still, Sihanouk notes, the Khmer Rouge did in fact assemble a fierce and formidable army. He notes in particular their use of children, ideal fodder for the Khmer Rouge, given the relative ease with which they could be indoctrinated. These young soldiers, Sihanouk claims, were trained in "cruel games" with the goal that "they would end up as soldiers with a love of killing and consequently of war... During the three years I spent with the Khmer Rouge under house arrest in Phnom Penh, I saw the yotheas in charge of guarding my 'camp' constantly take pleasure in tormenting animals (dogs, cats, monkeys, geckos)."

Sihanouk's analyses of the factors that determined the outcome of the civil war seems generally accurate, but there is one notable omission. In a chapter called "Why Did the U.S. Lose the War in Cambodia?" Sihanouk elaborates several reasons, among them: the US underestimated support for Sihanouk himself, and underestimated the determination of the Vietnamese to maintain a presence in Cambodia; they underestimated the effects of corruption in the Lon Nol regime; and the US overestimated the effectiveness of the bombing campaign. But Sihanouk does not mention what is arguably one of the most important reasons for Lon Nol's defeat: sheer American indifference. The fate of Cambodia was always a secondary concern to US policymakers. Vietnam was the real arena. Behind most American decisions, one senses that the real question was not, "How will this affect our allies in Cambodia?" but rather "How will this affect our ability to get out of Vietnam?" It is doubtful that any US action - even a massive US ground force - could have altered the outcome once the full fury of Cambodia's civil war had been unleashed. But American indifference to the fate of the Cambodians made it a foregone conclusion that no dramatic initiatives would ever be undertaken.

At times, Sihanouk demonstrates a very convenient blindness. Or perhaps he is demonstrating pragmatism. One notes that Sihanouk compares Pol Pot and Ieng Sary to Hitler and Goebbels... but never to Mao, which would be a much more accurate comparison. Perhaps this is recognition of the fact that Cambodia in 1979 needed the Chinese if they were to avoid being swallowed whole by Vietnam.

This, in fact, is one factor that distinguished Sihanouk from Lon Nol and Pol Pot. Only Sihanouk seemed to view the Vietnamese realistically. Both Lon Nol and Pol Pot believed that they could, if necessary, physcially overpower the more numerous, better-armed Vietnamese. It was an absurd belief, and it doomed both regimes.

For his own part, Sihanouk notes that during his rule he "...closed his eyes to the installation of Viet 'rest camps,' hospitals, provision centers in Cambodia. Secondly, he authorized the Chinese, Russians, Czechoslovakians, etc., to use the port of Sihanoukville (Kompong Som) as an unloading point for the military and other supplies to the Vietminh and Vietcong." It was all part of the delicate balancing act: Sihanouk himself may not have liked the communists, but he believed that they were destined to win the war in Vietnam, and when the war was over, it would be better to be regarded as an ally, rather than an enemy.

Such pragmatisim was entirely alien to the Khmer Rouge. They had unquestioning faith in their own destiny. The doctrinaire belief that sheer will would overcome lack of education and training, for instance, sometimes led to surreal incidents. Sihanouk notes in particular an anecdote relating to American helicopters that the Khmer Rouge had inherited:

"Shortly after the April, 1975 victory, the Khmer Rouge army decided to try out a few of the American helicopters Lon Nol had abandoned in Phnom Penh. They reasoned that if they had been able to teach themselves to drive, they would be able to figure out helicopters, too. A group of young yotheas told Mmd. Penn Nouth (wife of the former GRUNK Prime Minister) that one mechanically gifted comrade of theirs had indeed been able to get a helicopter off the ground, but he could not manage to land it. The would-be pilot finally met a far-from-heroic death when his craft ran out of fuel and crashed.

After this bizarre accident, the high command was forced to call on Capt. Pech Lim Khuon, a former pilot in Lon Nol's army who had joined the resistance movement at the beginning of the 1970-1975 war. The captain had no trouble getting airborne, and proceeded to make a happy landing in Thailand. He was subsequently granted asylum in France."

Sihanouk cites other interesting examples of the twisted world view of the Khmer Rouge. Khieu Samphan was fond of telling Sihanouk that the North Koreans were on "the wrong track". "'Now," Samphan told Sihanouk, "'the North Koreans have fine houses and cars, nice cities. The people are too attached to their new life.' he said. 'They will never want to start or even fight in a new war, their only hope of liberating South Korea and reuniting their country.'" Even more telling was Samphan's reaction to advice from the ailing Zhou Enlai, who advised the Khieu Samphan not to try to achieve Communism too quickly:

"The great Chinese statesman counseled the Khmer Rouge leaders: 'Don't follow the bad example of our "great leap forward." Take things slowly: that is the best way to guide Kampuchea and its people to growth, prosperity, and happiness.' By way of response to this splendid and moving piece of almost fatherly advice, Khieu Samphan and Ieng Thirith just smiled an incredulous and superior smile...

"Not long after we got back to Phnom Penh, Khieu Samphan and Son Sen told me that their Kampuchea was going to show the world that pure communism could indeed be achieved at one fell swoop. This was no doubt their indirect reply to Zhou Enlai. 'Our country's place in history will be assured,' they said. 'We will be the first nation to create a completely communist society without wasting time on intermediate steps.'"

Still, the Khmer Rouge belief in the the communist cause did not create any fraternal affection for their Vietnamese communist neighbors. The Vietnamese were scorned with a hatred previously reserved for the Americans. Sihanouk asked Khieu Samphan to explain the Khmer Rouge's hatred of Vietnam. "He unabashedly told me that 'to unite our compatriots through the party, to bring our workers up to their highest level of productivity, and to make the yotheas' ardor and valor in combat even greater, the best thing we could do was to incite them to hate the Yuons more and more every day.' Khieu Samphan added: 'Our bang-phaaun [literally, older and younger brothers and sisters] are willing to make any sacrifice the minute we wave the 'Hate Vietnam' flag in front of them.'"

Samphan was wrong. However much the Khmer mistrusted and despised the Vietnamese, they hated the Khmer Rouge even more. The anti-Viet stance of the Khmer Rouge did not increase the regime's popularity; instead, it set in motion a self-fulfilling prophecy. Goaded by a series of brutal border attacks, the Vietnamese finally invaded Cambodia, toppled the Khmer Rouge, and installed their own puppet government. The Khmer Rouge retreated into the mountains, where they continued to wage a guerrilla struggle against the Vietnamese.

After the Vietnamese invasion, many activists denounced the role of the Thais in "resurrecting" the battered remnants of the Khmer Rouge. Discussing his meetings with Deng Xiaoping in 1979, Sihanouk addresses this issue, with what seems like ambivelence: "It remained to be seen how China would make arms shipments to Pol Pot's guerrilla fighters. Deng told me it was 'no problem, Thailand is helping us.' When I asked Thailand's leaders about this, they called me a liar and said I was trying to compromise Thailand's 'strict neutrality' in the Vietnam-Kampuchea dispute. My guess is that the whole matter will be settled privately, without the Thai government being implicated..."

Still, despite his anger and fear over the Vietnamese invasion of his country, Sihanouk gives them their due: "History may judge me as it sees fit for asserting that no matter how distasteful and humiliating we Khmer find the current Vietnamese presence in our country, it is the people's only protection against being massacred by the Khmer Rouge (and inadequate protection at that)."

At the time the book was published, a few meager forces had taken up the royalist banner, vowing to fight the Vietnamese occupation. They were no match for the Vietnamese, and Sihanouk quickly came under pressure to align his forces in a coalition to fight against the Vietnamese. In War and Hope he describes this proposal as "tantamount to putting a starving and bloodthirsty wolf in with a lamb." But here, too, the Prince would later reverse himself, and he ultimately joined an uneasy triumvirate with the Khmer Rouge and another faction led by Son Sann.

With a keen understanding of the difficult decisions faced by the Khmer, Sihanouk reserves his highest praise not for his comrades-in-arms, but for those displaced by the continuing conflicts: "The common people of Cambodia have given us a magnificent example of farsightedness and genuine patriotism: they go along neither with the Khmer Rouge nor the outsiders. They prefer to flee to Thailand, exposing themselves to the greatest dangers in the process, or else hide deep in Cambodia's forests, risking death from starvation, sickness, snakebite - or being eaten by tigers and wolves. That is what I call real courage and patriotism."

Surrounded by warring combatants, at risk from death and disease: in a sense, the choices faced by the Khmer people were akin to the choices faced by the country itself. Whatever one's opinion of Sihanouk, one must recognize this: By 1970, in a game of global politics, Cambodia was dealt an almost impossible hand. Bordered by stronger, hostile neighbors, trod upon by an uncaring superpower, violated by foreign armies, mired in poverty. There were no good options: there were only differing degrees of bad ones.

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