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Cambodia's political Houdini, former King Sihanouk, dies

The adjective most often applied to former King Sihanouk was 'mercurial,' a fitting way to survive his changes of mood and loyalties depending on the political exigencies of the time. 

By Donald KirkCorrespondent / October 15, 2012

In this 2011 file photo, Cambodia's former King Norodom Sihanouk, center, speaks during a ceremony to mark the 20th anniversary of the former monarch's return to his homeland after years of civil war, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Philong Sovan, Xinhua/AP/File

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Seoul, South Korea

Whether ruling as king or prince, Norodom Sihanouk liked to call Cambodia an “oasis of peace” surrounded by warring nations. He failed, however, to keep his country from enduring one of the cruelest dictatorships of modern times.

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In a lifetime dedicated to fending off assaults on Cambodia by foreign interests, Mr. Sihanouk survived power shifts at the heart of the greater power struggle for control of a portion of Southeast Asia historically ruled by France as “Indochina.”

When Sihanouk died Monday in Beijing, he held the honorific title of “king father of Cambodia” even though he had left Cambodia eight years earlier for treatment for a variety of illnesses.

The adjective often applied to Sihanouk was “mercurial” to describe his changes of mood and loyalties. The loud-talking, gregarious Sihanouk was revered and beloved by his people.

“He is the father of the nation,” said Cambodian Prince Sisowath Thomico, an adviser to the current king, as flags flew at half mast in Cambodia. And he leaves behind highly divided emotions and memories.

“Whatever he was to Cambodians and foreigners, Sihanouk's death ends a significant, tumultuous, and ultimately tragic era,” says Wayne Corey, a Voice of America correspondent in China at the time.

Sihanouk, born in 1922, the son of King Norodom Suramarit and Queen Kossamak, titular rulers under French colonial authority, was crowned king at age 18. The French, then under the Nazi regime at Vichy, saw him as a puppet who could serve their interests as Japanese rule spread.

Sihanouk, however, campaigned for Cambodia’s independence, which Cambodia won without bloodshed in 1953 while French forces were bogged down in Vietnam. Two years later, he gave the crown back to his father and named himself “prince” – the word by which he was identified until Gen. Lon Nol overthrew him in March 1970.

Before his downfall, Sihanouk let North Vietnam send troops and supplies through Cambodia to South Vietnam while China shipped arms through the Cambodian port of Sihanoukville. He believed the future of the region lay with the communists – and was on his way to Moscow  at the time of his ouster.

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