Sunday, April 19, 2009

You cannot be serious

I am open-mouthed at the naivety displayed by Sihanouk in this interview from the archives. Surely he didn't actually believe a word of what he was saying. He could not have been serious. Of course, its essentially all about him. Isn't it always. On the other hand, to undermine the Khmer Rouge may've signed his death warrant, as befell so many of his own children, grandchildren and other close relatives. Read it for yourselves. Published in today's Sunday Times in the UK.

From the archive: Problem prince in uneasy alliance with Pol Pot
12 October 1975: the symbolic head of state tells our correspondent, William Shawcross, of life in 'year zero' of the Khmer Rouge regime.

Prince Sihanouk talked in the presence of a Khmer Rouge companion. He was sitting beneath a picture of himself accepting an AK-47 automatic rifle – the universal symbol of revolution – from the Khmer Rouge. Since returning to Phnom Penh he has lived with his wife Monique in one of their old houses: “Food is brought to us every morning by the food service of the army. I have three little revolutionary cooks working for me and my aunt is teaching them cuisine. I sleep in the bed I once had made for my hero General de Gaulle. As I am very small, I am very comfortable. I just tell you this little detail for lady readers.” Last month the Khmer Rouge agreed to let him back to Phnom Penh only after lengthy negotiations with his Chinese hosts and sponsors. Sihanouk was in Moscow in March 1970 when Marshal Lon Nol took over in a coup and he spent the next five years living in Peking.

He is something of a problem for Cambodia’s new communist rulers. His popularity in the countryside might be unsettling for them and he did once sentence them to death and secretly allow President Nixon to bomb the communist camps. His talk gave some of the first clues about conditions in Phnom Penh since the Khmer Rouge marched into this city of 3m and emptied it of people. “The Khmer Rouge had to move them out because there was no meat, vegetables or rice,” he explains. “They had to be taken to the provinces the Khmer Rouge had liberated, where there was food for them.” The dangers of epidemics and starvation on the forced march into the countryside he does not describe, but he believes Phnom Penh is now adjusting to its new reality.

Sihanouk confesses to an admiration for the speed with which the Khmer Rouge have radicalised the country and their plans for the capital: “Phnom Penh was a Sodom and Gomorrah under Lon Nol. Now it is spartan. No nightclubs, no bars, no taxi girls. Much calmer than before. There are no cars. Everyone walks on foot. We are creating a new society with one class, not one where some people die of overeating and others die of hunger.” Asked if Cambodia, like North Vietnam, would demand US aid as reparations, he shouts: “We will never do so. Our blood is not to be commercialised. The US will have to pay for its crimes in the pages of history.”

“Before 1970 the free world used to call Sihanouk a dictator,” he says. “Now they are quite surprised. They don’t understand my role. Well, I’m like the Queen of England. I inspect schools and will receive ambassadors, etc, etc. That keeps me quite busy, you know. The ministers come and see me to ask my advice and give reports on their work.” He was allowed to make one brief visit to the countryside. Asked about massacres, he says: “I was not there, but I do not think so. Fighting exists only in the minds of some ugly Cambodians in Thailand and Paris. They fight from their nightclubs.” He still speaks, as when he was what he now calls “a playboy prince”, with wit, charm and enthusiasm that is often passion. Through his revolutionary ardour, loyally learnt in five courageous years in exile, the old jazz-playing film buff Sihanouk sometimes glitters a little sadly. Infuriated by a question about the fate of Lon Nol’s former cabinet ministers, he shouts again: “Why do you worry about these scum when so many good Cambodians have died? It’s not as if they were Marilyn Monroe or Rock Hudson.”

The impression Sihanouk conveys of his life in Phnom Penh, as the Khmer Rouge leaders wonder what to do with their old enemy, is a lonely one. A sad-eyed discontinued prince rattling around an empty palace in a scarred and empty capital. But he is extraordinarily resilient and persuasive and hopes his loyal, passionate nationalism alone may in time persuade his hosts that he can be used more effectively. He wants to work for them so long as they need him: “I think they need me now. But I have told them that if the day comes when they no longer do so, I’ll be very happy to be quite free and live in my little house in France. I like the movies, you know. I shall be able to go to the movies.”

Prince Sihanouk was deposed six months after this interview [but remained in Phnom Penh until a day before the Vietnamese forces overran the city]. Pol Pot’s genocidal regime led to the death of more than 20% of Cambodia’s population. Sihanouk, now 86, returned as king in 1993 until his abdication in 2004. Copyright 2009 Times Newspapers Ltd.


Wednesday, April 1, 2009

9 lives

Norodom Sihanouk posing outside Angkor Wat
A new 52-minute documentary titled The Nine Lives of Norodom Sihanouk and produced and directed by Gilles Cayatte for French television has come in for criticism from the former King of Cambodia's official biographer Julio A Jeldres for its many inaccuracies and bias in painting a negative picture of Sihanouk's actions throughout his long and full life. The controversial film was shown on French tv a few days ago and covers the period of 1941 to 2004, explaining through interviews and rare footage of the King's incredible ability to survive and take on many roles, such as a prince, the king, the president, the non-aligned, the exiled, the prisoner, the man committed, the artist and the king-father, which help in turn to reveal the history of Cambodia itself during that same period. Jeldres also highlights that he spent six hours with the film director giving him detailed explanations of the King's actions at various times during the period under review but none of these made the final edit of the film, whilst chief amongst those whom Jeldres has a gripe against is none other than emminent historian David Chandler.


Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Giving back

4 of the 7 artifacts being returned to Cambodia
Thailand are making a big noise today after their cabinet agreed to return 7 artifacts that even they couldn't find an excuse to keep. There are another 36 sandstone sculptures that they are hanging onto until the Cambodian government can prove they are Khmer in origin. Essentially, Thailand are making Cambodia jump through hoops to get back artifacts that were stolen from Cambodia nearly a decade ago and found in a sea-freight cargo seizure by Thai customs. If Cambodia can prove provenance, either documentary or photographic, Thailand will return the other 36 artifacts. Until the handing-over ceremony, the 7 soon-to-be-returned artworks will go on show in Bangkok's National Museum. They include an 86-centimetre bust of a goddess and six heads of demons varying in height from 60cm to 81cm. Cambodia have been asking for the return of these items for a few years and only now have they agreed to their release. This is a thorny subject for me as I get easily riled when I hear of Khmer artifacts residing in other countries, when they really should be housed in Cambodia. Don't even get me started on the French, who came here, took what they liked the look of and returned to France with their ships laden with Khmer bounty. Presumably, the French removal firm that were employed to strip temples like Preah Khan of Kompong Svay of their treasures had a signed thumb-printed note from the local village chief that it was okay to remove the items from the country. As if. The French even had the brazen cheek to appoint a known thief of Angkorean sculpture from Banteay Srei, Andre Malraux, as their Minister of Culture for a decade.

In a similar vein, the former King of Cambodia, Norodom Sihanouk, handed over his personal archive of over 1 million documents and 10,000 photos to... wait for it... the French National Archives in Paris, a couple of years ago. Can you believe it? As if they haven't got enough historic Cambodian items already in their possession. I await one of the former King's zany hand-scribbled notes explaining his reasoning behind this incredulous decision any day now. What was wrong with presenting these items, collected after 1970, to a Cambodian institution like the National Archives for example, or even (am I really saying this) the French-run Bophana Center, or leave them with me and I'll look after them. But keep them in Cambodia, it's the least you can do. I could almost feel Jane Fonda squirm when I heard the documents include a letter from the American actress to Sihanouk congratulating him on the Khmer Rouge victory and offering to take up their cause in the US - nice choice Jane. The 'Sihanouk Fund' will be housed at the Soubise Hotel in Paris - it's taken two years to catalogue the stuff. I'm speechless.