Cambodia: Reflections on the death of a king

King Norodom Sihanouk

Kulikar Sotho (inset) reflects on the life of King Norodom Sihanouk

The 19th and 20th centuries marked the death knell of many monarchies around the world, especially the more autocratic ones; today there are around 44 sovereign nations left who have monarchies, including our own British Royal Family of course. However, whilst ours and some others aren’t perhaps as revered as they once were, it’s a very different story in Cambodia. Here, Audley’s partner in Cambodia, Kulikar Sotho, reflects on the importance to her people of the late King Norodom Sihanouk.

Known to many as the last of the God Kings, in reality I always believed King Sihanouk was a man of the people at heart. Stories I was told from his early days as a leader are the stuff of legend, stories that told of him sneaking out of the palace in disguise as a simple citizen to check the pulse among the population. For King Sihanouk, his country and his people was more than duty, it was a passion and that is why so many Cambodians like me revered him, even in his twilight years.

The Bayon, Siem Reap

The Bayon, Siem Reap

My king was the international face of Cambodia for more than half a century. His political fortunes may have risen and fallen, but he was always our symbol of the nation, even in the darkest days of Democratic Kampuchea. If the temples of Angkor represent the spirit and soul of Cambodia in stone, then our king Sihanouk was the human representation of this spirit and soul. He was a link to the glorious past of the Kingdom of Cambodia, a time when Angkor was the Rome of Southeast Asia and spread its civilization throughout the region.

King Sihanouk was a Titan, a political giant from a bygone era of Cold War politics who tried his best to remain neutral in a polarized world. His big personality helped a small country like Cambodia punch above its weight for a time as he rubbed shoulders with powerful world leaders from the non‐aligned movement. There were dark and terrible years in his life, many that he would rather forget. However, when he returned to Cambodia in 1991, he helped the Cambodian people and his country along the road to recovery. This was the first time I saw the king in person and the era when my Mother showed him around the Ministry of Tourism on his return to his beloved kingdom.

Phnom Penh river scene

Phnom Penh river scene

Civil war, genocide, occupation, by 1990 Cambodia had lost its way, lost its spirit and its soul. While I was growing up, there was no sense of Khmer identity, no culture, no belief and he helped to return these elements to me and my people. He restored a sense of national pride that was lost to the madness of war and destruction. To Cambodians young and old, he was a symbol of hope amid the despair and despite his lack of power, he was able to act as a moral beacon for our recovering society, leading by example.

While I mourn his passing, I swear on his spirit and soul that I will continue his traditions and uphold his values, to help promote national pride and a Cambodian identity on his behalf. This is a real challenge in the modern world of globalization, but as Cambodians we have much to be proud of. Historians may judge him differently due to the complexities of his personality and the complications of his reign, but in the end he did what he did in the interests of Cambodia and the Cambodian people. He was my king. He made me proud to be Cambodian. May he rest in peace.

Kulikar Sotho

Norodom Sihanouk, King of Cambodia, was born on October 31, 1922 and died October 15, 2012

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