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The adoptive father - King Sihanouk of Cambodia (Excerpts)

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Journalists, diplomats, and scholars have spilled a lot of ink over King Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia. However, no observer has ever publicly analysed many essential facets of the human being.
Beneath the carapace of the Head of State, what are the characteristics of the psychological make-up of the private person? What kind of resilience enabled him to survive destiny’s cruellest twists and turns, and then to achieve a victory applauded without reserve by the United Nations’ member states?
This is the focus of this essay. It uses a subjective viewpoint to describe the king’s childhood and adolescence. It sheds an unconventional light on what experts in international relations have not perceived in the man who was active in the political arena from April 1941 to October 2004.
US Ambassador John Gunther Dean, who had to flee Phnom-Penh in 1975, is one of the outstanding personalities who understood the true nature of King Sihanouk. He wrote the foreword of Poivre’s book.
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Tipram Poivre
An Unusual Portrait of King Sihanouk of Cambodia
To the man who gave me something more precious than life
Chapter 1 : Twilight
Chapter 2 : The Fruit of Love
Chapter 3 : The Chrysalis
Chapter 4 : The First Roars
Chapter 5 : The Jaws of the Lion
Chapter 6 : Foggy Bottom or Might Makes Right
Chapter 7 : The Iniquity
Chapter 8 : The Farewell
About the Author
*~*~*~*~* Foreword
At the moment when King Sihanouk is leaving our world, I am anxious to give my
testimony of the crucial and essential role he played in the international arena throughout the
thsecond half of the 20 century.

I first met him in 1953, when I was appointed acting Head of the Economic Assistance
Mission in Cambodia. I fully shared his views on the need for economic and social
development. Through France, the US also financially supported the implementation of the
Cambodian army with a view to defend the country and to encourage the march towards
Sihanouk was aware that Cambodia’s salvation rested in neutrality, and he has always
protected the strategic interests of Cambodia. He was a Nationalist who strove to keep his
country out of the Indochina War. He was so perfectly right!
Sihanouk was the type of man whom Manicheans could not understand. Unfortunately, in
those days, the Western World, and particularly the United States, were doggedly opposed to
neutrality. They divided the world into pro-communists and anti-communists. Under
Sihanouk, Cambodia was neither one nor the other. It was a small country situated between
two rivals, Thailand and Vietnam, and its only defender in the region was China. In Europe,
he was supported by General Charles de Gaulle.

Sihanouk considered the 1970 coup instigated by General Lon Nol as treason. He sought
refuge in Beijing, for he was convinced that the three Indochinese countries’ struggle for
independence could not be stopped by the US intervention. Sihanouk has been harshly
criticized for having decided to spend his exile in Beijing and for having accepted the support
of the Khmer Rouges. In those days, he may have perceived them as the defenders of the
Khmer independence who rejected all foreign influence.
I think that, with time, Sihanouk became critical of the Khmer Rouges. But the American
raging bombings, which caused numerous civilians deaths, have probably persuaded him to
maintain his alliance with the Khmer Rouges. It must be added that for many years, Sihanouk
had experienced very bad relationships with the CIA, and that he was wary of this
organisation’s harmful role.
The duty of a Head of State is to stand for his country and his people’s long-term
interests. In this regard, Sihanouk was among the greatest personalities of his time, and a
leader of vision. Small countries must steer clear of the Great Powers’ conflicts.
Sihanouk understood that Bandung and then the Non-Aligned Movement – of which he
was one of the founding-fathers – was the path to follow in order to avoid a military disaster
and remain independent. He has been a neutralist his whole life long, but the Western World,
and particularly the US, did not approve his policy.
As far as I am concerned, I fully agree with King Sihanouk, and following him,
I proclaim: “Long live the Bandung spirit!”

I feel deeply honoured to write this homage to my friend Sihanouk, and I do hope that
with time, History will prove him right. May he rest in peace.


John Gunther Dean
Ambassador of the United States of America to Cambodia (1974-1975)
1 – Twilight
“The news is not too good today.”
If the Queen, her adoptive mother, starts her message with cautious words, it means that
the situation is critical. This is what Ti said to herself in alarm. She left her electronic slate to
fetch a wooden box stored away from light, in which there was a small phial of hemlock
essential oil, the properties of which have proved terrifically soothing. She poured two drops
of pale yellow liquid in the hollow of her elbows and massaged the skin vigorously with her
fist. She absorbed large gulps of aromatic molecules, inhaling and expiring loudly, on the
verge of dizziness, staring at the crescent moon which stood out against the starry sky of
Paris. Since this silvery comma could subdue the ebb and flow of the sea, it could also abate
any peril on our earth, if a loving heart prayed for it fervently enough.
When her pulse started to calm down, Ti resumed reading the mail received from Beijing,
dissecting every sentence to detect the peril which might be lurking behind the apparent
banality. The sword of Damocles was about to fall, and the Queen tried to tiptoe the
information so as not to arouse panic, or perhaps in order to keep her own dread in check.
King Sihanouk, Ti's adoptive father, is already in his nineties and must face a fourth or fifth
cancer attack, she does not know exactly, because she has stopped counting them. Has the
distressing denouement become ineluctable? Is the lifespan of the man to whom she owes so
much nearing its end? This eventuality pierced her stomach, even though she was aware that
it was but the natural outcome of any terrestrial life.
She forced herself to visualise what would come next: the tropical humidity, the bier laid
under a canopy ornate with long brocade curtains, pristine banners, candles throwing
flickering flashes of brightness on silver trays. Wreaths of tuberoses, jasmine, and frangipani
flowers arranged in hedges, basins of lustral water, sugary vapours of melting wax,
incandescent incense sticks crying tears of ashes. Monotonous lines of monks chanting ritual
psalms, naked feet pattering on the carpets, the family dressed in white, affected
countenances, appropriate sniffs. Outside the palace, across the street, the clatter of the
carpenters erecting the base of the pyre with their drills, their saws, and their hammers.
Ti decided that she would not attend the cremation ceremonies, because the prospect of
mixing with certain greedy princes and princesses made her gorge rise. Their fantasies are
commensurate with their voracity, and their conceit makes them impervious to the amorality of their behaviour. Illegal logging of precious wood, embezzlement of funds raised for the
Cambodian Red Cross, undeserved advantages, nepotism, influence peddling, nothing shocks
them. While the populace at large struggles for its survival, Their Royal Highnesses live high
on the hog. They strive to outdo each other with their extravagances, and they proudly flaunt
pretentious villas, trendy limousines, fully-loaded 4x4, plastic surgery operations, mistresses
or gigolos, unless they are busy gambolling from one time zone to another to purchase
aircraft, precious stones, or any new pricey whim.
As if multitudes of men, women, and children had not perished under the fire of
American B-52 bombers, as if the Khmers Rouges’ madness had not stained with blood the
history of humanity forever, egocentric royals strut about in the best palaces with the vulgarity
of parvenus. Their gold jewellery and the glimmering silk clasped around their bribe-stuffed
bodies fail to conceal their venality. They couldn’t care less. Wherever they go, they set their
lips in a pout of disdain and stick out their chest. Although they exhibit the stamps of their
infamy, they expect everyone to kowtow to them. It does not dawn on them that their only
right is to be a model of virtue and to heal their country's wounds.
There are however a couple of exceptions, a few persons of integrity totally unmoved by
the sirens of corruption such as Queen Monique and her sons, namely Prince Narindrapong,
who denounced the uselessness of the upper classes, and King Sihamoni, who was elected by
the Council of the Crown in 2004. The majority of the rascals who have been, or still are,
entrusted with high responsibilities wallow without restraint in depravity. They grow rich by
shovelling up kickbacks, with no commiseration for the afflictions of the Khmer people, and
with no concern for the degrading image they give of the elite. They aspire to rake in more
and more money and, adorned with the most pompous titles, hasten to abide by the demands
of anyone willing to grease their princely palms.
Selling off their honour to the multinational corporations which plunder Cambodia does
not satiate their ferocious appetite. As King Sihanouk’s health deteriorates, they sharpen their
claws and get ready to snatch whatever they can from what they assume to be a colossal
fortune. They cannot believe that the King owns nothing abroad, aside from a meagre bank
account in Paris, on Rue Saint-Lazare. In the early 1980s, he donated to UNICEF his modest
cottage in Mougins, off National road 7. As to the sumptuous Beijing mansion, the former
French Legation where he resides when he travels to China, although it is put at his disposal
by the Chinese government, it remains the property of China, which bears the costs of
maintenance and general upkeep. In a period when the media disclose the scandalous extent of the material riches
dishonestly amassed by certain political leaders and corporate executives, Ti was proud to
think that gold, or any other material goods, never had the power to speed up the pace of
Prince-King Sihanouk's heartbeats, for greed is alien to him. She was hoping that, when the
time comes, impartial and courageous people will acknowledge the probity of her adoptive

The Prince's followers were already rejoicing over the prospect that their leader would
stay in France, particularly Khek Vandy who had a direct connection with the Élysée Palace
through Jean-David Levitte, one of the President’s aide. But the Prince told them about an
incident dating back to the 1960s, the golden days when Cambodia was a haven of peace amid
war-torn neighbours. The Prince was having lunch at a gourmet restaurant on the French
Riviera, probably on a balmy day enshrouded in the iridescent light specific to this piece of
paradise which inspired scores of painters and novelists. Among the diners, someone mistook
the Prince for the former Vietnamese Emperor Bao Dai and berated him for living lavishly at
the expenses of French taxpayers. The Prince reacted with suave courtesy to the uncouth
criticism by saying that he was Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia, that the French republic did
not provide for him, and that he paid his bills himself with the salary he received from his
government. The unpleasant taste left by this trivial incident was the main reason why he
renounced the project of living in France. Indeed, the standard of living was high in
industrialised countries, and it became conspicuous that, even in the most optimistic
hypothesis, the rights of the memoirs he was drafting would not enable him to settle in
Western Europe. Since he refused to be entirely taken care of by the French government, he
returned to Beijing. It is manifest that such a decision does not match the portrait of the
cynical freeloader sometimes painted by his detractors.
Contrary to the Mercurial Prince title bestowed by the media, he never relinquished his
principles. One salient example of his political constancy was his commitment to
transparency, which he pushed to its paroxysm when money started to flow in again.
In 1982, under the joint pressures exerted by the ASEAN countries (Brunei, Indonesia,
Malaysia, The Philippines, Singapore, Thailand), by China, and by the USA, he reluctantly
formed a tripartite Coalition government which included his former Premier Son Sann,
supported by Washington, and the Khmer Rouge Khieu Samphan, supported by Beijing. He was then provided with an operating budget which he could use as he pleased. He made a
point of honour to record his expenses, even the minor ones, in notebooks which were
regularly handed over to the donor countries. It goes without saying that original invoices
stamped “Paid” were meticulously attached. The inquisitive curiosity of Italian journalists
offered him the opportunity to publicly reveal this draconian self-imposed rule.
It occurred by the end of the summer of 1985, during a visit made to Roma at the
invitation of Bettino Craxi's government. In addition to a live TV programme at Rai Uno and
a press conference at the Grand Hotel where he was staying, the Prince had agreed to a
tête-à-tête with two journalists. Astonishingly, they focused neither on the Prince’s political
programme nor on the private audience with Pope John Paul II that was scheduled for the
following day in Castel Gandolfo.
They were mainly interested in money matters and made innuendoes about his opulent
hotel. Although the Prince explained that the activities of the Coalition government were
funded by China, France, and the United States, the interviewers were sceptical and badgered
about his alleged personal wealth in a vexing tone. The Prince grew infuriated and finally ran
short of arguments. He instructed Ti to fetch the account books from Princess Monique’s
room. Ti wasted no time waiting for the lift. She climbed the monumental stone staircase two
at a time, after having taken off her court shoes so as not to break her neck. She came back
promptly with three registers of three different colours, one colour for each donor. The Prince
grasped them swiftly. “Here are my accounts”, he said with a trace of provocation in his
voice, glaring at his dumbfounded interlocutors. He laid the notebooks on the coffee table
and, with a gesture of the hand, invited the newsmen to read through the pages of figures.
Everything was scrupulously listed, the Prince's salary and that of his aides, clothes, photos,
printing of information brochures, stamps, stationery, official trips and functions, diplomatic
gifts, absolutely everything. He underlined that the only items that were not justified by a
receipt were tips given to housekeeping and restaurant staffs attending to him when he
travelled abroad.
Such a line of conduct, deliberately opted for since no donor imposed it, would have met
all the stringent governance criteria set by Transparency International, had this NGO existed
in those days. If Prince Sihanouk's personal practice were imitated by leading politicians and
CEOs worldwide, whether in industrialized or developing countries, monarchies or republics,
it would become less strenuous to eradicate the hydra of corruption, a horribly contagious

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