By Geoff Gunn
No less momentous for modern Cambodian history was the Vichy French installation of Norodom Sihanouk as king and the elevation under Japan of the putative republican Son Ngoc Thanh. Facing down an armed Issarak-Viet Minh challenge also joined by a dissident prince, it is no less significant that the young King Sihanouk successfully trumped French ambitions by mounting his own “royal crusade” for independence even ahead of the Geneva Settlement of 1954.
Undoubtedly the passing of Norodom Sihanouk on October 15, 2012, at the age of 89 after six decades of close involvement in Cambodian politics has served to refocus attention upon the status of the monarchy in that country, facts not diminished by the actual succession in October 2004 to his son Norodom Sihamoni (b. 1953).
A phoenix float carries the casket of Sihanouk
Though much exoticized and othered as a peaceful realm under the French protectorate, at least alongside the challenges imposed by Vietnamese nationalists, dissent always simmered beneath the surface calm in Cambodia, whether from the overburdened-over taxed peasantry, from the major immigrant communities, from religious radicals within and without the Buddhist hierarchies, or even from scheming royal princes.
Given French manipulations of religion, tradition and even the royal line, a complex political picture emerges, even prior to the Japanese occupation. Japan was even more successful in Cambodia than in the other Indochina states in installing an anti-French republican demagogue, an enigmatic figure whose name recurs in Cambodian history down until the US-backed military coup in Phnom Penh of March 1970.
Thanks to Anglo-French intervention, and Sihanouk’s personality, the post-war outcome in Cambodia was a “royal road to independence” although even that pathway was severely challenged by the Viet Minh and their sometime Issarak (Free Khmer) allies. Yet the royal ascendancy around the Vichy French-anointed monarch, Sihanouk, would also come back to haunt Cambodia, not only in striking a neutral course in the maelstrom of the American war, but also in lending his name to the China-backed anti-Vietnamese communist movement that triumphed in Phnom Penh in 1975.
As this article develops, below the politics of culture or the tendency of the French to buttress neo-traditionalist trends wherever they saw them, emerges a byzantine crossover of royal dynasties, powerful families and cliques that, in many ways, continued to define Cambodian politics through the modern period. It is also true, as Roger Kershaw (2000; 6; 17; 19-20) unveils in a comparative study on the “fortunes” of monarchy in Southeast Asia, that analysis of surviving monarchies (as with Thailand and Brunei alongside Cambodia), should at least account for the “synthetic” alongside the “authentic traditional values” (not excepting even Britain from this analysis).