Cambodia’s former king Norodom Sihanouk has highlighted the need for increased national unity as he made a rare appearance before tens of thousands of Cambodians on Sunday to mark the 20th anniversary of his return from exile.
The estimated 40,000 supporters, most of whom were younger students, cheered energetically outside the Royal Palace as Sihanouk delivered his first public remarks since returning Thursday from nearly three months of medical treatment in Beijing.
The revered former king, who turned 89 years old on Monday, or 90 years old by Cambodian reckoning, was joined at the podium by his son King Norodom Sihamoni and Prime Minister Hun Sen while addressing the crowd Sunday.
He said that despite his continued health problems, he would remain in his home country and requested that China dispatch physicians to assist him in the event that he should require medical care.
Sihanouk has suffered from colon cancer, diabetes and hypertension.
He also called on Cambodians to work around their political differences to aid in the development of the country.
“Not in as ambitious a way as the superpowers, but we just want people to recognize that we are united as a country, which will show our strength,” he said.
“We are moving forward in any number of fields, so let us join hands to develop what is [regarded as] the supreme interest of our nation.”
Those who gathered welcomed the words of the former king, whose turbulent rule saw him twice exiled and twice returned to the throne before abdicating to his son in 2004, citing ill health and old age.
“We still see the Cambodian people are scared to talk about things. Let’s unite and cease discrimination based on political party affiliation,” said a moto-taxi driver in Phnom Penh.
A university student, who did not provide his name, said the former king’s return brought a sense of calm and optimism to the people.
“Our king is here, so we are comfortable. When he is away—think about when we’re away from our parents. How do we feel?”
Minister of Women’s Affairs and cabinet member Ung Kuntha Phavy said that Cambodia had already benefited from increased cooperation across party lines.
“Through unity and cooperation, we have already begun to improve the development of the economy.”
Sihanouk first ascended Cambodia’s throne in 1941 and ruled until shortly after guiding the country to independence in 1953. He abdicated to his father and became prime minister in 1955 after an overwhelming victory in the parliamentary elections.
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.
The former king 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. He served until abdicating to his son Norodom Sihamoni in 2004 due to health problems.
Nonetheless, Sihanouk praised Hun Sen Sunday for his “tireless work and achievements” in developing the country during his time in power.
"Also, I admire the government of Cambodia and the parliament for their joint efforts to develop the nation," he said.
Hun Sen also said Sunday that he welcomed what he described as Sihanouk’s idea of national reconciliation.
“Under the former king’s leadership and along with the government, a win-win policy was implemented that has brought us full peace and national reconciliation,” Hun Sen said.
Hun Sen said the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) was determined to protect the monarchy, the Constitution, political stability and work towards national reconciliation.
“The CPP and the government have always expressed high respect, love, gratitude and loyalty to the [King Father] as the father of unity and the national reconciliation,” Hun Sen said.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Hassan Abukasem. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.