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Cambodia: Sihanouk's role questioned

Publisher Radio Free Asia
Publication Date 15 October 2012
Cite as Radio Free Asia, Cambodia: Sihanouk's role questioned, 15 October 2012, available at: [accessed 12 December 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


Chinese netizens are not as kind to the late Cambodian king as their leaders.

File picture shows Prince Norodom Sihanouk (R) being greeted in Beijing by Chinese paramount leader Mao Zedong, Aug. 28, 1975.File picture shows Prince Norodom Sihanouk (R) being greeted in Beijing by Chinese paramount leader Mao Zedong, Aug. 28, 1975. AFP

Chinese leaders have heaped praises on Cambodia's ex-monarch Norodom Sihanouk after he died of a heart attack in Beijing on Monday, but Chinese netizens and political commentators are less reverent about the role he played in his country's recent history and the nature of his relationship with their own ruling elite.

The 89-year-old Sihanouk had spent years in exile in China and was close to revolutionary leaders Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai early in his political life. He succumbed to a heart attack during his most recent stay in Beijing.

His son and current king Norodom Sihamoni and Prime Minister Hun Sen are in the Chinese capital to collect the body, which will arrive in Phnom Penh on Wednesday and lie in state at Cambodia's royal palace for three months ahead of a lavish funeral.

Chinese leaders expressed their condolences over Sihanouk's death, with Premier Wen Jiabao and Vice President and leader-in-waiting Xi Jinping visiting the former Cambodian leader's widow Queen Monineath to personally express their sympathy.

President Hu Jintao said in his condolence message that Sihanouk's death was a "huge loss" to the Cambodian people and that Sihanouk was a "great friend" of the Chinese people who had contributed much to strengthening of relations between the two countries, state news agency Xinhua reported.

Wen spoke highly of Sihanouk's life, noting that he had made "unremitting efforts and remarkable contribution to Cambodia's national independence and peaceful development," Xinhua reported.

Xi said Sihanouk, who called China his "second home," had "forged a profound friendship with generations of Chinese leaders and made an indelible contribution to create and cultivate China-Cambodia relations."

Sihanouk first went into exile in Beijing in 1970 after he was toppled, backing the Khmer Rouge guerrillas who were emerging as a considerable force.

He fled again to China just before the Vietnamese invaded and toppled the notorious Khmer Rouge regime in 1979. He later spent much time in the country as his health failed.

Front-page obituaries

While official Chinese media carried front-page obituaries praising Sihanouk with headlines that included "A hero of the people's liberation," and "The Chinese people remember you fondly," Chinese netizens and political commentators were less kind to the former monarch, who is believed to have enjoyed a lavish lifestyle in China during his exile days.

One user, @zuojiajinmanlou, on the popular Sina Weibo microblogging site went on to say that "things turned out somewhat better" for Sihanouk "than for some of China's other good friends, like Saddam Hussein or Gadhafi."

"What I want to know is, who was bankrolling his high-level lifestyle all those years he was living in Beijing? Was Cambodia sending China money every year to pay for this?"

The former king was known for his often lavish lifestyle, which included a love of film, jazz, cars, food, and women. He married at least five times – though some say he had six wives – and fathered 14 children.

Sina Weibo user @shijian wrote: "Sihanouk took up a good deal of the evening news broadcasts.... I remember that every third to fifth news item mentioned him back in the 1980s."

"He came across personally as an elderly guy that most Chinese people liked ... but back then I didn't know all that stuff about the Khmer Rouge."

"He has been gradually moving out of the public eye in recent years, so I guess this will be the last time he makes the news."

'Free lunch'

Xiao Jiansheng, editor of the state-run Hunan Daily newspaper, said everyone in China had heard of Sihanouk via high-school history textbooks.

"Back in the 1970s, after the coup in Cambodia ... Premier Zhou and Chairman Mao took pretty good care of him," Xiao said.

"But there were plenty who said at the time that this guy was just getting a free lunch at China's expense, and that the only reason they let him stay was for symbolic reasons, a matter of branding."

Xiao said Sihanouk was regularly to be seen at public and state events.

"Back then, China was pretty poor, but he got very special treatment... Most people thought he didn't do anything much, and that.... It was all just window-dressing."

Meanwhile, Shenzhen-based independent commentator Zhu Jianguo said Sihanouk had been associated in people's minds with the far left of the ruling Chinese Communist Party during the Mao era.

"He supported and approved of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and the Great Leap Forward (1958-1960)," Zhu said. "That's why China approved of him, and sent him political help and material aid."

"His main contribution to his country was to bow and scrape to China in return for domestic support," he said.

Xiao said Sihanouk had been less of a friend to China than a useful political tool in the hands of the Party to bolster its image by depicting itself alongside committed international allies in the wake of the Sino-Soviet split (1960-1989).

"China was pretty isolated back then, and we only had Albania, North Korea and Cambodia [as friends]," he said. "[Sihanouk] was used by China to prettify its international isolation."

Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

Link to original story on RFA website

Copyright notice: Copyright © 2006, RFA. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Asia, 2025 M St. NW, Suite 300, Washington DC 20036.

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