Cambodia's political Houdini. Former king is a master at extricating himself from political jams
On the Thai-Cambodian border
Prince Norodom Sihanouk is in the United States this week rallying support for the Cambodian resistance movement. Almost all sides of the nation's conflict see him as the only true nationalist capable of reuniting his war-torn nation. IN a jungle clearing, a box of French chocolate bonbons lies on a wobbly bamboo table. Prince Norodom Sihanouk pops one in his mouth. He giggles and looks at his wife, Princess Monique, who cuddles a pet dog, pure white and pure bred.Skip to next paragraph
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The former monarch is holding court, only he is in his guerrilla camp, located on the Thai-Cambodia border. Mud and mosquitoes encircle his make-shift hut. His audience is a ragtag army and hundreds of Khmer refugees. They bow in awe at his presence.
At one point the aging Prince, who traces his ancestry back to the god-kings of the Angkor Wat empire, turns toward a guest: ``After victory, we shall return the name of our country to Cambodia, not Kampuchea,'' he pronounces in a high voice. ``Don't you agree, Mr. Khieu Samphan?''
Khieu Samphan, the nominal leader of the Khmer Rouge and a comrade of the notorious Pol Pot, hesitantly nods agreement. He has little choice. This is ceremony, not only a remnant of a lost monarchy, but a necessary display of unity.
The Khmer Rouge and Prince Sihanouk are in an awkward political alliance known as the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea, which includes a third guerrilla group led by noncommunist leader Son Sann. The three groups forget much of their past hatred of one another for the sake of mutual opposition to Vietnam's decade-long occupation of Cambodia.
At moments like this, the former King is at his best. He exudes pomp and flows with the circumstance. He is, after all, a clever survivor, a political Houdini who has escaped predicaments by artful dodges and surprise moves ever since his coronation at age 19 in 1941.
``His power is in his unpredictability,'' says Kishore Mahbuhani, Singapore's ambassador to the UN.
Sihanouk has not ruled his country for more than 18 years and yet, now, through his pragmatic diplomacy, he is courted by both friend and foe, big countries and small. Last year he was offered a ``high position'' by his chief opponent, Hun Sen, the prime minister of the Hanoi-backed People's Republic of Kampuchea, which rules in the capital of Phnom Penh. The Soviets, who support Hun Sen, keep regular contact with Sihanouk.
Almost all sides in this simmering war see him as the only true nationalist who can reunite his tiny and torn nation in a political settlement. After two decades of violence and four radically different governments, the emotionally scarred Cambodians look back on Sihanouk's long reign as the antebellum good years, when a content and passive people were sheltered by their ``papa.''
His former royal palace in the heart of Phnom Penh is a grand courtyard that glitters with past glory. There the ``playboy prince,'' as he was known, a lover of French cuisine and political intrigue, once held court for real.
But the palace today is ill kept and largely vacant. The Communist-led regime has not said whether it would let him reside there if he returns.
In the meantime, however, Sihanouk travels back and forth between the world's capitals. This week, he visited President Reagan. Then he is off to the UN, where he holds Cambodia's seat. In early November, he is in Paris for another round of peace talks with Hun Sen. Last month, he called for a big-power summit on Cambodia next year.