Sihanouk now: Prince without a country
Cambridge, Massachusetts — The abrupt change in his expression is unnerving, frightening. In an instant all his beaming, chortling, and giggling is effaced by a terrified, wild-eyed sadness: all the joyful innocence and incomprehensible agony of Cambodia seem mirrored in his face.
Prince Norodom Sihanouk may never see Cambodia again. Its Vietnamese conquerors, bent on fashioning a pliant tributary state out of the luckless country, show no sign of going home and by his own admission he cannot drive them out. Hanoi, he says, has "a delicious piece of cake" in its mouth and "is not willing to spit it out."
"We will have to give up the idea of an armed struggle," he declares forlornly, remarking that "hawks in California want me to create a national army to lead a struggle against Vietnam." But he simply hasn't the wherewithal to launch such a venture, he says.
Prince Sihanouk, who was speaking at Harvard University, has been visting the United States and Canada to express his thanks for the compassion and hospitality shown his countrymen in their travail.
While the prince might be able to rally a melange of Cambodian exiles, refugees, and freebooters to his standard, he has no weapons to arm them with and no prospects of getting any. Moreover, Thailand would not permit any force he raised to slip in and out of Cambodia from bases on its territory.
Any liberation army the prince might raise, moreover, would face an additional problem: Hanoi's rule in Cambodia is reportedly not nearly as malevolent as might have been expected, and while the Cambodian people have no love for the Vietnamese they might not welcome another round of fighting, even if it were designed to liberate them. They are sick of war and butchery and a good many view the Vietnamese as liberators who lifted Pol Pot's yoke from the land -- though they might not immediately admit it.
Capitalizing on this sentiment, perhaps, Hanoi seems to be demonstrating a surprisingly light touch in Cambodia and life is said to be returning to something approaching normal there, although the continuing specter of famine and disease threatens real progress.
Predictably, officials of the government of Democratic Kampuchea (the former Khmer Rouge regime) at the United Nations take a different view of Vietnamese rule in Cambodia: It is typified by widespread massacre and murder, they allege.
Of course, China stands ready to arm and equip any force Prince Sihanouk can drum up. But there's a catch: he would have to throw in his lot with Peking's proteges -- Pol Pot, Khieu Samphan, and the Khmer Rouge -- a condition that leaves him if not speechless, close to it.
"The Khmer Rouge are responsible for the deaths of at least two million people," he exclaims, asserting that as a result of their murderous rule "the people of Cambodia are facing a misfortune without parallel in the history of mankind." His own family did not escape their terror, he declares with anguish. "I have lost two sons, three daughters, two sons-in-law, and 15 grandchildren."
In "Chronicles of War and Hope," a book he published in Paris last year, Prince Sihanouk declared: "Pol Pot is a lunatic whose megalomania exceeds in its madness even that of Hitler." Of Deputy Prime Minister Ieng Sary he wrote: "Ieng Sary is not 'mad' in the classical sense of the term. But his personal ambition is unbounded and constitutes in fact a variation of raging insanity."
Prince Sihanouk does not blame Pol Pot alone for the Khmer Rouge's bloodletting. "Khieu Samphan, the theoretician of the party, was also responsible," he insists. Last December, Khieu Samphan, who commanded the People's Army of National Liberation from 1970-76, took over the leadership of the Khmer Rouge from Pol Pot, who may have faded from view to avoid saddling the embattled guerrillas with his infamous reputation at a time when they are eager for international approval. On the other hand, he may simply have been purged by a leadership known for its savage infighting. A biography of 12 members of the government of Democratic Kampuchea just issued by its permanent mission to the UN makes no mention of Pol Pot. But he is still alive, says Prince Sihanouk.Some reports have him leading the struggle against the Vietnamese.
The exiled Cambodian leader claims that Vietnam has not crushed the Khmer Rouge forces along the Thai border both because it needs time to "digest" Cambodia and because their survival gives it a pretext for a continuing occupation of the country. Moreover, if Vietnamese troops attempt to eliminate the Cambodian guerrillas, he says, "there will be clashes with the Thais" and in his opinion the Vietnamese "want to avoid any difficulty with the international community," which he feels will come to accept the conquest of Cambodia as a fait accomplim in the near future.
How does the prince explain the ferocity of the Khmer Rouge? "Their leaders were very ambitious," he declared recently. "They wanted their names in history."
Faced with an occupying army he has no hope of destroying and spurning an alliance with guerrillas he abhors, Prince Sihanouk proposes the calling of an international conference to guarantee Cambodia's neutrality, followed by free elections under United Nations supervision in which all parties would be permitted to participate."The people should appoint the government they want," he says. If his Confederation of Khmer Nationalists gains power, he has pledged to restore Cambodia's neutrality, something he cannily preserved until Lon Nol, his prime minister, ousted him in a coup in 1970. He had planned to form a coalition government in exile but abandoned the notion last year.
Though the continuing plight of his country is very much on his mind, he has time to reflect on the tumultuous decade that transformed Cambodia from a gentle green land dotted with gilt Stupa spires to a war-ravaged concentration camp.
He concedes that he turned a blind eye to Viet Cong and North Vietnamese sanctuaries on Cambodian soil during the Vietnam War, apparently out of a healthy respect for the Vietnamese whom he describes as "very tough and very intelligent." But if he tolerated the sanctuaries, he also permitted the US to bomb them, agreeing to the action in a 1968 meeting with US ambassador to India, Chester Bowles, though he has since claimed he had no idea the area would be regularly pounded by high-flying B-52s. "I had to be Machiavellian," he says, his face creasing with mirth.
He adds that he informed Ambassador Bowles of his doubts about the efficacy of bombing jungle sanctuaries because of the difficulty of knowing the guerrillas's exact position. Innocent Cambodians would be killed in the process , he observed and he told the ambassador: "You should concentrate on killing Vietnamese."
The prince takes considerable glee in relating an account of a meeting with Henry Kissinger in Peking at which the former Secretary of State announced: "Prince Sihanouk, I have always liked you. I am not pro-Lon Nol. I am pro-Sihanouk. We were not involved in the coup d'etat against you. It surprised us very, very much."
Grinning broadly, Sihanouk says he pointed out to Kissinger that a telegram granting US recognition of the regime followed hard on the heels of the 1970 coup. "Suppose the US was ignorant of what was in preparation against me, how could you, as a democratic government, decide so quickly to recognize Lon Nol?" he asked Kissinger.
He informed the former Secretary of State that he felt neither he nor President Nixon wanted to see him return to power. Kissinger insisted he was wrong and, as he recalls it, declared: "We wanted you back. You must believe me. I have always been your friend." Observes Prince Sihanouk: "He wanted me to acknowledge that it was all the fault of Lon Nol, not of his government."
Addressing Kissinger with Gallic courtesy as "excellence," Prince Sihanouk recalls that he told him: "Let bygones be bygones." And he echoes that attitude today. "It is not useful to let the past come to the surface," he says.
In his book "Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia," British journalist William Shawcross observes that "no direct link between the United States and Sihanouk's usurpers before the coup has been established," adding that "the extent of American complicity (if any) could probably only be uncovered by Congressional investigation." Shawcross notes that Henry Kissinger hinted at US complicity when he told a group of European journalists in 1977 that the US had not been involved in Sihanouk's overthrow "at least not at the top level."
Though seemingly prepared to forgive Kissinger when he met him in Peking, Prince Sihanouk has accused him along with President Nixon of bringing catastrophe on Cambodia. "Lon Nol was nothing without them and the Khmer Rouge were nothing without Lon Nol," he asserted in a long interview with Mr. Shawcross. "Mr. Nixon and Dr. Kissinger gave the Khmer Rouge involuntary aid because the people supported the Communist patriots against Lon Nol." By expanding the war into Cambodia, he told the British author, the two men achieved the opposite of what they wanted. "They demoralized America, they lost all of Indochina to the Communists, and they created the Khmer Rouge."
Prince Sihanouk returned to Phnom Penh from exile in Peking in October, 1975. He claims that prior to departure, and in his presence, Mao Tse-tung told Khieu Samphan that he and his wife, Monique, and their two children were not to be killed when they got back. Though his life was spared, he was kept under house arrest from April, 1976, to January, 1979, when the Chinese snatched him from the path of invading Vietnamese troops.
Before his imprisonment, he was allowed to visit rice fields, cooperatives, and factories. Though the peasants he saw had to work "day and night," they seemed to be well fed and reasonably happy, he recalls. "I tried to persuade the Khmer Rouge to lighten the hardship of the people," he says. "But they did not listen."
Although nominally head of state, Prince Sihanouk relates that he was nothing more than a figurehead in Phnom Penh, barred from even receiving foreign ambassadors, a function Ieng Sary performed. "I did not see anybody," he recalls, adding with a faintly hysterical giggle: "I even had to listen to Radio Vientiane to learn the name of my ambassador to Laos."
In April, 1976, "being humiliated and extremely unhappy about the fate of my people" he resigned as head of state. Thereafter he was confined to a house in the royal palace, and two months before the Vietnamese invaded he was moved to another, smaller one. As he told Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett: "I never knew when I went to bed at night whether I would be alive [the] next day."
When he was in Montreal recently, a group of Cambodian refugees stridently accused him of responsibility for the tragedy that has befallen Cambodia. They claimed he had presided over a corrupt regime and ordered his police to kill "patriots."
"They said I created conditions for a coup and after for the genocide policy of Pol Pot and finally for invasion by the Vietnamese," he exclaims. To the charge of corruption he insists that Lon Nol's regime was "ten times more corrupt" than his was and to the charge that his police eliminated "patriots" he replies: "I can swear nothing like that happened during my rule in Cambodia. I invite my Cambodian enemies to provide one or two names of those patriots killed by [my] police. No one can present one name of an intellectual or patriot killed." Declaring that those he was accused of killing reappeared after the 1970 coup, he exclaims: "I have to let history judge me."
Prince Sihanouk is still extremely popular with the Cambodian peasantry and it is probably too soon to count him out as a political force in the country. The Chinese might decide to back him against the Vietnamese if the latter wipe out the Khmer Rouge. Indeed, if Peking were to launch a massive attack on Vietnam (unlike its limited incursion in February, 1979) and shatter the Vietnamese empire in the process, Prince Sihanouk might well find himself back in power in Phnom Penh -- in the absence of the Khmer Rouge, that is. When he fell out of favor with the Chinese (after refusing to throw in his lot with Pol Pot), Prince Sihanouk went to live in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, where strongman Kim Il Sung kept him in the manner to which he had become accustomed. These days he lives in Paris in modest housing provided by Cambodian exiles. He is working on a trio of books, one of which is a biography of President Kim Il Sung, and last year he finished a film, shot in Cambodia, called "Rose of Bokor, " dubbed in Korean with English subtitles. In it he plays a Japanese colonel who falls in love with a beautiful Cambodian woman, played by his wife.
Prince Sihanouk ascended the Cambodian throne in 1941 when he was 19 years old and in 1953 he negotiated the country's independence from France. Richard Nixon, who met him that year when he visited the country as Vice-President, later wrote in his memoirs that the prince seemed "vain and flighty" and "totally unrealistic about the problems his country faced."
In the 1950s the prince had something of a playboy image. He tried his hand at songwriting and movie-making and learned the accordion and saxophone. As Nixon recalls it, he was prouder "of his musical talents than of his political leadership." He abdicated in 1955 to form his own party, the People's Socialist Community which won all the seats in the National Assembly that year.
"The humble people of Cambodia are the most wonderful in the world," Prince Sihanouk told William Shawcross during their interview. "Their great misfortune is that they always have terrible leaders who make them suffer. I am not sure that I was much better myself, but perhaps I was the least bad."
The prince would clearly like to end his French exile and return to Cambodia. "We are waiting for a better time," he says, sadness sweeping over his face with the suddenness of a tropical squall. "Perhaps there will be one, but nobody can predict the future."