The former king of Cambodia, who guided the country to independence and later allied with the ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge regime, has died at the age of 89 after a sustained bout with cancer.
King Norodom Sihanouk had been receiving medical treatment in China since January and died after suffering a heart attack at a hospital in Beijing early on Monday morning local time, according to a member of the royal family.
Born in 1922, Sihanouk led Cambodia through the eras of French colonialism, Japanese rule during World War II, and the Vietnam War—guiding the nation with a nationalist sentiment throughout its tumultuous history during the latter half of the 20th century, while deftly maintaining his claim to the country’s throne.
Educated in secondary school at Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City, Sihanouk ascended the throne in 1941 at the age of 19 following the death of his maternal grandfather, King Sisowath Monivang, while Cambodia was part of French Indochina, along with modern-day Laos and Vietnam. He later attended military school in France.
In 1945, the Japanese Empire deposed the French administration and took control of French Indochina, pressuring Sihanouk to declare Cambodian “independence” from France.
When Japan surrendered after its defeat in World War II later that year, the French retook control of French Indochina and allowed Sihanouk to retain his right to the throne.
In the early 1950s, Sihanouk began demanding independence from the country’s French colonists and their removal from Indochina.
Threats to his life from the French forced Sihanouk into exile in Thailand in 1953, though he returned to Cambodia later that year to retake the throne when the country was granted independence.
In 1955 Sihanouk abdicated the Cambodian throne in favor of his father, Norodom Suramarit, and established the Sangkum, or “Popular Socialist Community,” becoming the country’s first prime minister through an overwhelming victory in parliamentary elections that year.
He survived an assassination attempt by agents of the anti-communist South Vietnamese government in 1959 when his son, and head of protocol, opened a package that included an explosive which was purportedly sent by a former American engineer who had earlier worked in Cambodia.
Khmer Rouge ally
In 1960, after the death of his father, Sihanouk was officially designated head of state. He managed to keep Cambodia out of the Vietnam War by playing different political factions off of one another, but was deposed by then-Prime Minister Lon Nol in 1970 while traveling outside of the country.
The former king relocated to Beijing and allied with the communist Khmer Rouge, which overthrew the U.S.-backed Lon Nol regime in 1975.
The group sought to turn Cambodia into an agrarian utopia, but devastated the country through economic mismanagement and purges that led to the death of nearly 2 million people.
Sihanouk became a voiceless prisoner in his own palace until a Vietnamese invasion removed the Khmer Rouge from power in 1979 and he returned to exile. The Vietnamese withdrew from Cambodia in 1989 leaving a pro-Vietnamese government in place under the lead of former Khmer Rouge cadre Hun Sen.
He returned to Cambodia from China in 1991 and was restored to the throne in 1993, but was marginalized by Hun Sen with threats to abolish the monarchy.
Sihanouk served until abdicating to his son Norodom Sihamoni in 2004 due to health problems.
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. But despite his life of excess, he was beloved throughout Cambodia.
Sihanouk was diagnosed with B-cell lymphoma in his prostate in 1993 and again in his stomach in 2005. He was diagnosed with an additional cancer in 2008. The former king also suffered from diabetes and hypertension.
His son will fly to Beijing to retrieve his body on Monday and he will be given an official funeral in Cambodia.
Reported by Joshua Lipes.