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May 29, 2017

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Cambodia's former King Sihanouk dies at 89

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- Norodom Sihanouk, the revered and often mercurial former king and independence hero who helped navigate Cambodia through a half-century of war, genocide and upheaval, died Monday in Beijing. He was 89.

Throughout a life of shifting loyalties and sometimes exile, Sihanouk saw his Southeast Asian nation transformed from colony to kingdom, from U.S.-backed regime to U.S.-bombing zone, from Khmer Rouge killing field to what it remains today — a fragile experiment in democracy.

Sihanouk had had been in China since January to receive medical treatment for a variety of illnesses he had suffered in recent years, including colon cancer, diabetes and hypertension. Prince Sisowath Thomico, a royal family member who also was Sihanouk's assistant and nephew, said the former king suffered a heart attack at a Beijing hospital and passed away before dawn Monday.

Sihanouk had abdicated the throne in 2004, citing his poor health. The move paved the way for his son Norodom Sihamoni to take his place.

On Monday, Sihamoni flew to China with Prime Minister Hun Sen to retrieve Sihanouk's body. State flags flew at half-staff, and Cambodian government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said an official funeral would be held once the former king's body is repatriated. No date has been set.

In January, Sihanouk requested he be cremated in the Cambodian and Buddhist tradition. He asked that his ashes be put in an urn, preferably made of gold, and placed in a stupa at the Royal Palace.

Life of Strife and Luxury

Born Oct. 31, 1922, Sihanouk enjoyed a pampered childhood in French colonial Indochina. In 1941, the French crowned him king instead of other relatives closer in line to the throne because they thought the pudgy, giggling prince would be easy to control.

They were the first of many to underestimate him, and by 1953 the French were out.

In 1955, Sihanouk stepped down from the throne, organized a mass political party and went on to hold various positions as head of state.

Through those years, he steered Cambodia toward uneasy neutrality at the height of the Cold War and was founder of the Non-Aligned Movement.

In 1965, he broke off relations with Washington as U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War shifted into high gear. But by 1969, worried about increasing Vietnamese communist use of Cambodian soil, he made new overtures to America and turned against China.

Sihanouk's top priority was to keep Cambodia out of the war, but he could not. U.S. aircraft bombed Vietnamese communist sanctuaries in Cambodia with increasing regularity, and his protests were ignored.

Internally, Cambodia was a one-man show. Sihanouk's sharpest critics accused him of running a medieval state as an ancient Khmer ruler reincarnated in Western dress.

"I am Sihanouk," he once said, "and all Cambodians are my children."

Sihanouk was a ruthless politician, talented dilettante and tireless playboy, caught up in endless, almost childlike enthusiasms. He made movies, painted, composed music, fielded a palace soccer team and led his own jazz band. His large appetite extended to fast cars, food and women. He married at least five times — some say six — and fathered 14 children.

Nonetheless, many adored Sihanouk as a near-deity.

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