In his 58th year Cambodian Prince Norodom Sihanouk has one nightmare. He is on the Cote d'Azur, his head bowed, strolling up and down the boulevards, going nowhere. One face is recognizable. He meets up with Bao Dai, Vietnam's exiled emperor.
"No, it could never happen, never," exclaims the prince, descendant of the great Angkor emperor Jayavarman VII, head of one of the world's oldest royal houses. For all of his life, and especially today, Sihanouk has married his destiny to his country's. If he were to disppear into the slow death of retirement, so, he feels, would Cambodia. It would become as Asian Lithuania, a colony of vietnam, and all would be lost.
Such a fate is unacceptable to the prince. "Madame, Cambodia a Lithuania? No. I have more confidence in the future of my country," Sihanouk proclaims. He says this as he tours the world searching for international support that is not coming. He says this as an army of 200,000 Vietnamese soldiers controls Cambodia -- where the Vietnamese doing is the chief currency, Vietnamese the second langauage and Hanoi's ambassador in Phnom Penh the consul-general in all but title. The Vietnamese leadership does not want Sihanouk to return.
And no one can remember whether Bao Dai is dead or alive in exile.
The male and female figures carved on the bas reliefs at Angkor are full-bodied, generous in limb, with large sultry mouths. Even in his conservative suit -- tailored in China with little respect for his round form -- Sihamouk retains the air of that Augkor race. He is mobile: jumping from his small feet to address an audience, waving his dainty hands to erase a thought. His eyebrows dance like a swarm of bumble bees.
Sihanouk is more than another exotic ruler in exile roaming the world's capitals, never finding a home. For 29 years the erratic but brilliant prince kept his country at peace, holding back the Vietnamese war from drowning Cambodia.
At the same time, he kept the world entertained. He composed and recorded songs often played at state occasions. It is said he was a womanizer -- even he does not know how many children he has sired.And he confounded the superpowers by saying the only chance for Cambodias survival was for the great nations to find an "entente cordiale . . . a rapprochement."
Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger later would call such a concept detente, but it would exclude the survival of Sihanouk's Cambodia. Instead, the United States, with its warplanes and military aid, would help drag Cambodia into its Indochina War plans. Kent State, Jackson State exploded in protest. Cambodia has never recovered.
Sihanouk is here on a mission. Since 1970, when he lost power, his country has been visited by every suffering imagined. The six-year civil war ended in 1975, only to be replaced by the brutal regime of Pol Pot, and then the country was invaded by the Vietnamese last year, Famine, the deaths of countless Cambodians under Pol Pot -- all these have led many to consider Cambodia a modern-day Holocaust.
Sihanouk has not walked away from his country. He is here to ask for more humanitarian aid, to keep alive the idea of an international conference where Cambodia could be declared a neutral nation, protected like Austria from the throes of the new cold war. If this does not work, he is threatening to lead an army into Cambodia to force the Vietnamese to the conference table.
At this moment all seems hopeless. "I have no solution, there is no solution," the prince admits. "But there may be one soon, and I am willing to wait."
His audience is waiting. Presidents of Cambodian communities up and down the Eastern seaboard have traveled to Washington to confer with Sihanouk. The prince needs these Cambodians, some the men who plotted his overthrow in 1970, others the military officiers who fought against Sihanouk in the six-year civil war. Then the prince was titular head of the Khmer Rouge, comrade-in-arms with the North Vietnamese, the NLF and the Pathet Lao fighting these "puppets of American imperialism," some of whom are now standing before him.
"They have been waiting to see me all day and they can not leave me. I am like their father," the prince says as an introduction. "Please, I am at your disposal, but you wouldn't mind if they stayed and listened to me. They are not journalists. They just want to learn from me."
Some fifteen men and one woman are ushered back to Sihanouk's parlor. At one end the prince motions the reporter to sit down next to him. Opposite, on three rows of chairs, the Cambodians take their places. They turn on tape recorders and pull out notebooks. The conversation with the American journalist will be written up in community newsletters here, in Canada and in France.
For the next hour, Sihanouk orchestrates journalist and Cambodians. A question is raised about Sihanouk's cooperation with the Khmer Rouge, with Pol Pot, who, after winning the war in 1975, put the prince under house arrest and masterminded a brutal revolution, evacuating all the cities and ordering everyone onto agricultural cooperatives that in fact were labor camps. In four years of Pol Pot's rule, as many as one million Cambodians died from starvation and disease or execution by the black-pajamaed Khmer Rouge soldiers who terrorized the country.
"We, the Cambodian refugees around the world, will not join the Khmer Rouge," the prince shouts, rising to his feet.
The audience applauds.
"I cannot reject the Lon Nolians [those who supported Lon Nol -- almost everyone in the room] because they are my children. The Khmer Rouge, they are the killers of my children."
The prince sits down, again the applause.
This was the Sihanouk of old, the king clever enough to abdicate his throne in 1955 so he could be elected chief of state (retaining his title of prince), a master of the public -- and the press.
In the '60s when he was especially upset, with American war policies in neighboring Vietnam, Sihanouk called in an American reporter -- Malcolm W. Browne -- to share in another audience. The new American ambassador was scheduled to present his credentials to the prince. "Sihanouk used the occasion to berate the U.S. . . . for using spies in the country," Browne recalled. "He positioned me in the throne room so I could be there and hear it all. . . . Obviously, I reported it."
Other reporters saw their interviews reprinted in the government's Agence Khmer Presse or heard them repeated over national radio.
Diplomats and journalists were spared the even more sophisticated manipulation Sihanouk employed against his rivals in the country. The prince was a dabbler in art and sport: He composed and recorded his own music (mainly jazz); he played basketball and he directed, produced and starred in at least a dozen films. Should a military figure, like Gen. Lon Nol, anger the prince, he would find himself cast as a villian in Sihanouk's latest melodrama as Lon Nol did. A disagreement with the prince could lead to a big part as the court dunce in a royal production.
Small wonder that the educated middle class and the leftists grew tired of their flamboyant prince. The royal comedy soured. After 29 years of peaceful rule, with the prince brokering independence for his country and making deals to dam the Vietnam war from flooding Cambodia, he was overthrown in the 1970 coup d'etat. He was welcome in Peking only.
The day of the coup, a white crocodile -- Cambodia's most powerful portent of change -- was sighted on the banks of the Mekong River. The country that before was synonymous with paradise has since become a symbol of tragedy.
Rep. Millicent Fenwick (R-N.J.) is one of the members of Congress invited to meet Sihanouk at the home of Rep. Stephen Solarz, a Democrat from New York who has spoken out on Cambodia since he came to Congress in 1974. He sees the parallels with the Holocaust.
Fenwick speaks to the prince in French and agrees with him that his country has become a nightmare. She also agrees that there is no easy solution.
"What should we do?" she asks.
The prince smiles with appreciation.
"If I am supported by the international community and the United Nations, then we could emerge as the people to fight the resistance against Vietnam. Now, the United States, China, Japan, Thailand support the Khmer Rouge," he says.
Sihanouk relays a conversation he had earlier in the day with Richard Holbrooke, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian Affairs. "He told me to go to Singapore," the prince says, his eyes glowing. "I said I wanted permission from Thailand to visit the Cambodian refugees there and to enter Cambodia. . . . His Excellency Holbrooke told me to go to Singapore and talk to my friend Lee Kuan Yew [the premier of that island state]."
The next day Holbrooke's office received phone calls from three of the congressmen and three of the journalists at the Solarz dinner asking why the prince was told to go to Singapore when he asked for American help.
That night Sihanouk sketched out the complicated and dismal state of diplomatic confusion over Cambodia. The Vietnamese army controls Cambodia while the Khmer Rouge and at least two factions of Cambodian nationalists are mounting resistance wars against them. The people of Cambodia are beginning to recover from the famine of last year, but they face the threat of another famine in late spring if they don't receive more international aid. Refugees on the Thai border say that the Vietnamese and their hand-picked Cambodian officials are stockpiling food and the peasants have little to eat. International diplomats have no idea how to persuade the Vietnamese to withdraw and let the Cambodians decide for themselves how to rebuild their country. And the Khmer Rouge could return again.
"Of course your country does not want to give arms to fight another war in Indochina," he said. "The Chinese want the Khmer Rouge to fight their proxy war against Vietnam . . . The Vietnamese, they are like a man who has a very delicious piece of cake in his mouth -- Cambodia -- and all that man can do is swallow the cake."
The politicians were impressed. One administration official who met the prince confessed that he was surprised at the compassion Sihanouk arouses, at Sihanouk's gentle brilliance.
But American officials seem to want to find hope in Sihanouk. The U.S. government paid for all of the prince's expenses in Washington -- his hotel room, cars, meals, etc. It was the idea of Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance, a man who openly admires Sihanouk.
The prince has another patron. "My good friend [North Korean Premier] Kim Il-Sung," Sihanouk says, "paid for my airplane ticket." The prince's mission is a joint venture, the first perhaps, of the United States and North Korea, as one American pointed out.
"Sihanouk operates on a number of levels," a State Department official said."What we hope is that Sihanouk retains his position. . . .It is absolutely essential that he be treated with respect. Not as a U.S. candidate to return to Cambodia, but as the important historical figure he is."