Charming and ruthless,he dazzled world with his wit

Norodom Sihanouk,the charismatic Cambodian leader whose remarkable skills of political adaptation personified for the world the tiny

Written by New York Times | Published: October 16, 2012 12:44 am

ELIZABETH BECKER & SETH MYDANS

Norodom Sihanouk,the charismatic Cambodian leader whose remarkable skills of political adaptation personified for the world the tiny,troubled kingdom where he was a towering figure through six decades,died early Monday in Beijing. He was 89. The death was announced by Deputy Prime Minister Nhiek Bunchhay. The former king had been dogged by ill health for years and regularly traveled to China for treatment.

King Sihanouk was crowned in 1941,when Franklin D Roosevelt was president,and held on to some form of power for the next 60-plus years. He served as monarch,prime minister,figurehead of the Communist revolution,leader in exile,and once again as monarch until he abdicated in 2004. He handed the crown to one of his sons,Norodom Sihamoni,after which he was known as the retired king,or the king-father.

He survived colonial wars,the Khmer Rouge and the intrigues of the cold war,but his last years were marked by expressions of melancholy,and he complained often about the poverty and abuses of what he called “my poor nation.”

Alternately charming and ruthless,he dazzled world leaders with his political wit and,in the process,raised the stature of his small Southeast Asian nation. He won independence for Cambodia from the French colonial rulers in 1953,using diplomacy and repression to outmaneuver his domestic rivals but without resorting to war,as his neighbors in Vietnam had done. He put his nation on a modern footing in the 1960s,especially bolstering the education system.

When the Vietnam War threatened to engulf the region,he tried to carve out a neutral role for Cambodia,siding neither with the Communists nor the US. But when the Vietnamese Communists began using the port of Sihanoukville and Cambodia’s eastern border to ship military supplies on what was known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail,he took steps to repair relations with the US. He turned a blind eye when the Nixon administration undertook a secret bombing campaign in 1969 against the border area of Cambodia. But this only further unsettled his country and led to a coup that ousted him the next year.

Criticised throughout his life for these dramatic shifts in allegiances,King Sihanouk said he followed only one course in politics: “the defense of the independence,the territorial integrity and the dignity of my country and my people.” He returned in 1993 as monarch and head of state after an accord brokered by the UN ended nearly 14 years of war in Cambodia.

Even in his darkest moments,the king never lost his flair for flamboyance or his taste for the finer things. As a young ruler and the scion of one of Asia’s oldest royal houses,he gained a well-deserved reputation as a playboy,a gourmand and an amateur filmmaker.

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