If there is a topic that all Cambodians can agree upon, then it is the king. Norodom Sihanouk was involved in every historical turn over the last 70 years in the countries history. It seems like all the ups and downs in his life had no influence on the relationship between him and the Cambodian people. Last week I was at the market and saw an elderly man sitting in front of his Khmai noodles, looking like they didn’t taste all that much. On his t-shirt was the print of king Sihnaouk and when he saw that I was mustering it, he suddenly began to grin. He pointed on the head and gave me a thumbs up. In every house in the country is a picture of Angkor Wat and Sihanouk on the wall, sometimes accompanied by pictures of his wife and son. The reason why his popularity is so widespread is, that most of the Cambodians think that he is an Ancestor of the great kings of Angkor. This means he is a god-king and his positing predestined. In 1941, when Norodom was 18 years old, the French colonial government appointed him king. He wouldn’t have been the first choice, as there were others far before him in the line of succession, but the French thought of him as a good candidate who could function as a marionette that would act like they wanted him to. The reason for this assumption was his lifestyle. He was interested in the beautiful things in life: art, theatre, music, movies and women. He spent his time going to parties instead of caring about politics and everyone believed that he would keep up this lifestyles after entering his duty. Even today, after his dead in 2012, he is known as the choreographer of the royal ballet, film director, actor, supporter of the classic Cambodian art and as a writer of dearly loved screenplays. He also wrote articles for the own governmental press and composed music for several LPs. Once he said that he could live without everything, besides luxury. His website where he posts, amongst other things, his own opinions on certain subjects, is highly popular within the public. Every citizen who searches for information on a topic first looks what Sihanouk is saying to that. On this website he for example openly announced his support for gay marriage, as Cambodia was a liberal democracy. He seems like a gifted personality, that always had the aim of doing his best to let the arts bloom and flourish. His politics were a little bit like his lifestyle, the changed, they differed, they never settled on one course or one opinion. Over the years he changed his alliances, temporarily designed from his duty as king to found a new political party with which he got 83 per cent of the votes. Between 1955 and 1970 he practically reigned over Cambodia as an absolute ruler. No matter who I ask what their opinion of Sihanouk is, Kadet, the market women or one of my students, every one answers me with: “Good, I think he’s very good.” And when I ask them why, what makes him so good, they have no answer. He is just an inviolable personality that stands over the rules of criticism. In March 1970 Sihanouk was overthrown by Lon Nol who was supported by the Americans. Sihanouk was at this time in Paris and moved afterwards to his exile in Peking, where he formed a new party the “Front Uni National du Kampuchéa”, that contained amongst others the Khmer Rouge. After Pol Pot founded “Democratic Kampuchea”, Sihanouk was appointed head of state again and returned to Phnom Penh. After Sihnaouk realized a part of what the Khmer Rouge had actually planned with Cambodia, he expressed his criticism and was put under arrest. He was not allowed to leave his house in Phnom Penh till the end of the reign. During the ruling of the Khmer Rouge, between 1975 to 1979, five of Sihanouks children and at least 14 grandchildren of his were killed. After Vietnam freed Cambodia he went in exile to China and founded a new party, the FUNCINPEC (Front Uni National pour un Cambodge Indépendant, Neutre, Pacifique, et Coopératif). During the peace process from 1991 to 1993, Sihanouk became head of state again. 1993 Sihnaoul was appointed king for the second time and Cambodia became a constitutional monarchy. In 2004 Sihanouk resigned because of health issues and left his throne for his son Norodom Sihamoni. Many people say that this, like many things in his life before was a political move and he went on reigning as king-father until his death. Looking back on his life, his opportunistic and unprincipled seesaw policies in which he changed alliances between East and West can only be understood, if one looks at his two most important principles. First, he wanted to keep Cambodia independent, especially from his neighbors Vietnam and Thailand, what has mostly historical reasons. Second, the maintenance of the home and foreign peace politics. After the big ceremony to cremate his bones in 2012, his popularity didn’t decrease. He stays one of the most extravagant and shimmering personalities of Cambodia. One quote by Italian author Oriana Fallaci might describe him better, than his whole biography ever could: “Hearing him speak is so fun, reassuring I dare say. You can say all you like about Sihanouk: that he’s an atrocious liar, a madman, a fraud, a swashbuckler, an international blot. You may think that, but you cannot deny how in this age in which the political arena seems to generate only dull, obtuse and boring characters with no imagination, he’s a kind of miracle.”
Another famous person that lives on in the hearts of many Cambodians is Sinn Sisamouth. He is considered the “King of Cambodian music”. During the 1950s and 70s was his main creation period. It is said that we wrote thousands of songs, his son Sinn Chaya claims, “At least one for every day he was famous.” The master tapes of his studio recordings were destroyed during the time of the Khmer Rouge, but his work lives on in recordings. He sang most of his songs with his female counterpart Ros Soreysothea, which was declared by Sihanouk, to be the Golden Voice of the kingdom. Today many of their most loved pieces are covered and newly interpreted by topical artists. His songs had elements of Khmer traditional music, just as rhythms of blues and rock n’ roll. He was killed during the period of the Khmer Rouge, just as all the other musicians, dancers, painters, writers, actors… and members of the royal family.
Sometimes when we have no guests at home, when there are no relatives that come to visit, my host parents talk about the imd of the Khmer Rouge. All I can do is sit there, with wide eyes and listen to stories that seem so incredible, I can’t believe them. Siphen told the story of when she was sleeping behind a hill with her father. The Vietnamese army and the Khmer Rouge were about to clash and they tried to stay away from the fight. Siphen smelled something very strange in the night and when she woke up and they walked to the other side of the hill, there were three dead bodies lying there. One of her brothers died during Pol Pots reign, another could flee over the border to Thailand and claim to be a high ranking official in Cambodia that needed saving as he spoke French. Her last brother survived the Khmer Rouge period and lives next to Siphens family these days with his own wife and grand children. Siphen knows how to shoot a gun, because she was trained in the army for three months. After the war was over they had nothing, Siphen got her first bicycle when she was 22 years old. Mach said that he used to collect paper from everywhere, the description of building utensils or cartons. He would dry them in the sun and sew them together to use it as a book. After the war, nearly every family had guns at home. Both Mach and Pou Pon had two. One day, there was a thief coming to their house to steal some chicken. To that time, you could never be sure if the thieves had guns themselves. When the chicken began to make noise, both Pou Pon and Mach were out of bed and began shooting. Mach said that you could see the lights of the gun bullets in the night. Siphen fled downstairs with Sreynoch on her arm to hide under a bed. One didn’t know, who the thieves were and how many of them. Today Cambodians don’t have guns any more, it is forbidden by law, but instead they all have many, many dogs to guard the house. Mach once said, that he actually liked it better when his life was very simple and all he had to do was look after the cows (they collated them after the war, as they were just running around free and didn’t belong to anyone) and work on the fields. Today his life got so much more complicated and he has more to do than ever before. “The more you own, the more you have to care about.”, he uses to say.
Mach and Siphen are two of the few people that actually have education in their generations, read in their free time and are interested to learn new things. So many others were killed and it sometimes seems like a miracle that some survived. When children come to school they have to start from the very bottom. Nothing is given to them by their family, they have nobody at home who encourages them to learn. This makes it very difficult to motivate the children and persuade them to try new things. Cambodias future lies within the hands of these children and hopefully they will write Cambodian history and overcome that boundaries of their birth.
Cambodias history has changed its people. And they try to hold on to the things that don’t change. Sinn Sisamouths music for example, or their king that is sent by the gods like the glorious architects of Angkor.