Cambodia is a small Southeast Asian nation, in terms of population, land area, economic strength or international influence. While as a long-term politician of the nation, Sihanouk’s exposure in regional and international political arena, is far more than the share that the nation itself has been supposed to enjoy.
It can be interesting to compare Sihanouk with Lee Kuan Yew, great politician of another ‘geographically’ small nation. Both have been harsh and totalitarian to their opponents. Both inherited a poor and tumbling small Southeast Asian nation. And both managed to survive between super powers, and eventually influence the region or the world.
Half a century passed, LKY farewelled a prosperous and rich mini island state with international influences. Sihanouk stayed in Beijing for long time, away from the Cambodia which survived continual wars, remained poor and was still occasionally instable. As late as Timor-Leste became independent to Indonesia in 2002, Cambodia had always crowned the poorest country in the region, probably only except for the war-torturing Vietnam in 1970s. Sihanouk enjoyed his manoeuvres with international and regional powers during his golden ages. While all the efforts had not only been immaterial in international politics, but had also failed to maintain peace in Cambodia. All the fruits he got was the emergency assistance from the United States in 1970s and subsequent shelters provided by China and DPRK.
Neutrality and appeasement
Appeasement, is actually inappropriate for Sihanouk. Except in some domestic issues, Sihanouk barely had any power to compete threats or violence from outside his nation.
He naturally accepted ruling of the French who had crowned him. He smoothly turned his country into a supplier to the Armed Forces of the Japanese Empire who could be never be satisfied. He ‘joyfully’ coalesced with Khmer Rough who imprisoned himself and tortured his children. He humbly retreated finding unable to compete with Hun Sen.
Throughout his long life, Sihanouk has not really claimed to follow any particular ideology or belief. Always credited himself with the independence of Cambodia from France, while he wasn’t really interested in it during the early years of his reign. For a short period after the independence, he had claimed to rule Cambodia under Buddhist socialism. Being flattered by his communist friends as a warrior against the American imperialism, he turned to a regular American policeman when being hijacked to New York to speak for Khmer Rouge after the Vietnamese invasion.
His neutrality was the result of repeated lessons learned from his fathers for offenses of the powerful Siamese and Vietnamese neighbours. His appeasement revived while realising unable to keep the Vietnamese off the Cambodian border, but decorated it as ‘the neutrality with a judgement of justice’. The appeasement ushered U.S. bombing of Cambodian towns and villages, and further involved his nation into wrestling of superpowers behind their regional agents, in which his fathers left no lessons for him to learn from.
Sihanouk has generally been more successful than other Cambodian political figures at his time due to his realistic character. He didn’t plan for violent conflicts with the French like Son Ngoc Thanh. He had never imagined driving Vietnamese out of his nation with the Cambodian army like Lon Nol did and failed. He agreed again and again to cooperate with Khmer Rouge right after repeated conflicts with them. He insisted talk with the Vietnam-backed government in Phnom Penh risking fury from the Chinese who had fought Vietnam for Sihanouk’s coalition government and suffered severe casualties.
Looking through the words of fame labelled Sihanouk, only keywords for his ‘success’ have been realism and compromise.
The ‘Patriotic’ Sihanouk
‘Patriotism’ does not talk about Sihanouk’s point of view about Cambodia.
Similar to earlier rules in the Cambodian kingdom, as well as to rulers in neighbouring empires, kingdoms or tribes, Sihanouk treated Cambodia as his own possession, and treated Cambodians as his ‘children’ as he always said.
However, not like any of his predecessors, Sihanouk had never put Cambodia under an absolute monarchy, at least technically. The instruments Sihanouk picked for ruling were modern or western.
Sihanouk had been a joint between the traditions and the constitutional monarchy. His political career was mixed with elements of different times. And he has thus perioded the old Cambodia as its last ruler.
Sihanouk is doubtlessly a great politician of his time and his nation. He doubtlessly loved his country and the people, in his own, probably out-of-time, way.
It was definitely not easy for Cambodia to maintain long-term peace during the tumbling ear of Southeast Asia. However, it is also unfair that Sihanouk blamed outside powers for all the tragedies inside his country. Sihanouk did make mistakes, especially in economy fields, during the rapidly changing era. Leaving various domestic issues unsolved, should have contributed more to the disasters, than any alien factors.
 The comments are also inspired by the Chinese version of Souvenirs doux et amers, a bibliography of Sihanouk himself.