The Leaderboard: King Father Norodom Sihanouk

Who is he?

Cambodia’s beloved King Father Norodom Sihanouk was a key political leader for more than six decades. Sihanouk was born October 31, 1922, when Cambodia was still under French colonial rule. He was crowned in 1941 and presided over Cambodia’s independence in 1953.  Sihanouk’s legacy was protecting his country’s independence.

His methods and effectiveness were not without flaw, but in roles ranging from king, to prime minister, to leader in exile, to constitutional monarch, he played an irreplaceable role in the hearts of most Cambodians.

King Father Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia. Source: Prachatai's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Most of Sihanouk’s career was set against the difficult backdrop of the Cold War, its proxy wars in Southeast Asia, and decades of internal political conflict. He was a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement, established in 1961, which has grown to 120 member countries.

The king father was overthrown in a military coup, exiled, and held prisoner by the Khmer Rouge. He eventually turned to the United Nations to broker a peace between Cambodia’s warring political factions, which resulted in the 1991 Paris Peace Agreement. Sihanouk regained the Cambodian throne in 1993 as a constitutional monarch.

After the effective dismantling of the loyalist party by Prime Minister Hun Sen and the Cambodian People’s Party, Sihanouk abdicated the throne in 2004 in favor of his eldest son, Norodom Sihamoni. He spent the majority of his retirement receiving his loyal supporters and well-wishers along with medical treatment in Beijing.

Why is he in the news?

Sihanouk, 89, died in the wee hours of October 15 of natural causes in Beijing. One of a cadre of great Southeast Asia political leaders who navigated the Cold War and the region’s transition to more open political systems and thriving economies, Sihanouk lived to see his country prospering and in a relatively peaceful place.

His son, King Sihamoni, and Prime Minister Hun Sen will return his remains from Beijing to Phnom Penh on October 17 for a traditional state funeral. He will be cremated according to Cambodian and Buddhist tradition and his ashes placed in a stupa at the Royal Palace. The official national mourning period will end October 22.

What can we expect?

Sihanouk was not active in politics in recent years, but will remain a revered figure for many Cambodians. He was one of the few unifying forces during Cambodia’s decades of upheaval, and remains so today both in his memory and embodied in the role of his son King Sihamoni. Despite the ups and downs of his political career, Sihanouk will be forever revered as the father of Cambodia’s independence and dearly missed by its people.


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