The passage of Norodom
Sihanouk is not a milestone for Cambodia as nothing will change as a result of
it: Sihanouk’s political life, in any form, ended a few years before the end of
his physical life. It is, however, a milestone in the living memory of Cambodia’s
tumultuous years since its independence from France in 1953.
Sihanouk was not only Cambodia’s
longest living politician but its greatest political survivor. The young Sihanouk
reigned over the Cambodia ruled by an uneasy alliance between the French and
the Japanese in the 1940s. He then saw the French re-establish themselves in
Cambodia after the defeat of the Japanese in World War 2 (of course, not by the
French). He abdicated the throne and threw himself into politics in the 1950s.
He walked a tightrope between the great powers engaged in the Vietnamese civil
war. He was ousted by one of his own in 1970 but refused to give up and went
around the world looking for support to get his job back. Not finding any
commitment to intervene, he allied himself with the Cambodian communists who
promised to put him back in office. He was played and never got his office
back. The Communists (the Khmer Rouge) kept him in the country but out of the
decision-making. When the second brand of communists (Vietnamese/Soviet led by
Heng Samrin) overthrew the first brand of communists (the Khmer Rouge),
Sihanouk was “encouraged” (by the Chinese) to side with the latter.
Apprehensive and resentful of the Khmer Rouge, Sihanouk went on to form an
alliance with them again for fear of being pushed out of politics and becoming
irrelevant. Sihanouk stayed active and relevant throughout the 1980s and came
back to Cambodia under the UN flag as a king again thus marking a full circle
in 40 years. His relationship with Hun Sen was rocky but the latter’s threats
of turning Cambodia into a republic and obliterating the monarchy did not have
much effect on Sihanouk’s drive for political survival (by then tempered by
years of political struggle). He finally stepped down in 2004 letting one of
his sons be elected to the throne.
Some of the older and less
educated Cambodians will remember Sihanouk as King Father. Those with more
education will remember his socialist programs in the 1950s and the 1960s. Some
will remember him for his amateur films and saxophone playing and lavish
parties for the dignitaries he hosted. Some might blame him for what happened
during Democratic Kampuchea while other will not. Some might see him as a
peacemaker. The younger generation will mostly remember him as a national
image, without attributing any particular deed to him.
The answer to the question of
why Sihanouk resisted appearing before the ECCC died with him. Historical
inquiry might give us an idea as to why
he resisted but we will never find out what
Sihanouk was afraid of being asked in court. His death robbed Democratic
Kampuchea history of an opportunity to benefit from Sihanouk’s testimony in
court. He has written on his role in Democratic Kampuchea but the truth would
have been much more within reach of the fact-finder under the pressure of
cross-examination in a court of law. Now this will never happen. How the fact
of Sihanouk’s death in the middle of the ECCC process will influence this
process remains to be seen. One non-legal reminder that Sihanouk’s death gives
is that the defendants, who are about Sihanouk’s age, are very old and the
possibility of death should be a real factor in how their cases are prosecuted.
Re-fashioning the US Supreme Court’s statement on the death penalty, this Court
will benefit from remembering that “death is different”: it might be a good
idea to learn from what happened in Milosevic.