One of the great survivors of modern Asian politics, Sihanouk served in a variety of leadership roles — both real and titular — in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, and in various governments in exile over seven decades. He twice was crowned king and twice abdicated. He also wielded power as a sovereign prince, a prime minister (serving 10 terms) and a head of state.
As war raged in neighboring Vietnam in the 1960s, Sihanouk struggled to keep his country out of the fighting. But his policy of accommodating the North Vietnamese communists alienated his army, and he was overthrown in 1970 in a rightist coup led by a U.S.-backed general, Lon Nol.
In response to that betrayal, Sihanouk sided with the radical Cambodian communist guerrillas he had dubbed the Khmer Rouge. (The Khmer people are Cambodia’s predominant ethnic group.)
His support gave the Khmer Rouge legitimacy in the eyes of many Cambodians, and it facilitated the movement’s eventual victory, which resulted in a four-year reign of terror that claimed an estimated 1.7 million lives.
That legacy produced the harshest indictment leveled against Sihanouk: that his impulse to settle personal scores nearly ruined his country and made him complicit in the Khmer Rouge holocaust.
“It is beyond question that Sihanouk deeply loved the Cambodian people,” wrote Bruce Sharp, a longtime Cambodia observer and founder of a Web site about Indochina, in a review of Sihanouk’s memoirs. “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.”
Held as a virtual prisoner in his palace during the Khmer Rouge rule, Sihanouk was largely isolated from the excesses. “I did not see the killing,” he told the New York Times in 1982, “but I saw the forced labor of my people.”
At the time of his death, Sihanouk was the self-styled “king-father” of Cambodia, a title he adopted after abdicating as constitutional monarch in October 2004 on grounds of poor health.
He handed the throne to his youngest surviving son, Norodom Sihamoni, now 59, a ballet instructor, choreographer and diplomat who had lived in France for nearly 20 years.
Although widely revered in Cambodia as a god-king, Sihanouk was well known for his human shortcomings. He was so erratic and temperamental that the adjective “mercurial” became a staple of news stories about him.