Wednesday, May 28, 2014


Buddhist stupas and memorials in the royal palace
I'm continuing my visit to the Phnom Penh's royal palace. This luxurious compound was best known as the home of King Sihanouk, Cambodia's most famous monarch.

Passing through a palace gateway, my view is filled with a whole new courtyard filled with memorials and Buddhist structures. Interspersed between carefully manicured trees, are numerous pagodas, Buddhist temples and shrines. At a few of them, Cambodians and monks in bright orange robes are praying. 

At the center of this peaceful courtyard, is the silver pagoda. This houses numerous statues of Buddha, made not only of silver, but also gold. Some are encrusted with diamonds. It’s a small miracle that these weren’t looted by the Khmer Rouge when they took over the palace; these must have been hidden away during those dark years. Many other treasures were taken away by them though. 

Controversial King Sihanouk (Photo: Wikipedia)
Some of these memorial stupas, are for deceased royalty, but the final resting places for many of Sihanouk’s own royal family remain unknown to this day. That was due to the King's complicated, and failed, relationship with the communist Khmer Rouge. 

It was Sihanouk who years back, coined the term ‘Khmer Rouge’, which meant ‘Red Khmers’. Nobody could have known then, that the Khmer Rouge would eventually become the most murderous communists in world history.

Way back in the 1960's, the communist movement that grew in neighboring Vietnam soon crossed the border into Sihanouk’s own kingdom. As the US war in Vietnam escalated, Sihanouk publicly declared Cambodia to be neutral in that conflict. Meanwhile, he did little to stop the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army, who had almost free range of Cambodia’s eastern provinces, moving troops and supplies down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Sihanouk's refusal to confront the Vietnamese communists, greatly frustrated the US government who were fighting them at the time.

While Cambodia stayed out of the Vietnam conflict, Khmer communists began to appear on the scene. In those early years, they didn’t pose a serious threat to the country, and the king and his security forces fought to keep them down. Sihanouk was far more popular with the people than the communists, who brought with them some strange foreign political ideology imported from Vietnam and China. 

Gardens surround the royal memorials
As the wars raged next door in Vietnam and Laos, Sihanouk turned away from politics and began to spend his time on another occupation: film making! He became a movie director, making movies in Cambodia. He also took a major interest in jazz music. Given the growing crisis in Cambodia, Sihanouk was appearing increasingly out of touch with what was happening within his own nation’s borders. 

Finally in 1970, while Sihanouk was out of the country, he was ousted in a coup. The putch was led by a general named Lon Nol, amid rumors of American involvement.

Sihanouk stayed in exile, where the monarch made another move that few would have expected.

The king allied himself with the Khmer Rouge! Joining his former enemies, Sihanouk soon made radio broadcasts urging his subjects to also join up with the radical communist rebels.

If there was any American involvement in the coup which had forced out Sihanouk, it had backfired. Thousands of Khmer men from all across Cambodia left for the countryside to join the rebellion. These young men new little about communism; they had joined the KR to fight for their king.

Later after the Khmer Rouge victory, Sihanouk was declared head of state. Still in exile in China, he begged the Khmer Rouge leadership to allow him to return to Phnom Penh. The KR leaders eventually allowed it, but Sihanouk would soon regret coming back at all.

Palace murals were ruined by weathering and neglect
The king became a prisoner right here, in his own palace. Stripped of all power, he was still technically head of state, but he was only a figurehead. The Khmer Rouge central committee held all the power. Sihanouk had been used by the Khmer Rouge, and now he was powerless to help his people, or himself. 

Ending his life of privilege, the KR took away all of his royal servants. His wife and son Sihamoni had to take over the cooking and cleaning of the palace residence. The former queen and humbled prince, were now their own housekeepers.

Many still wonder why Sihanouk made such a foolish political move. When he was still Prime Minister, his security forces had killed more than 1,500 Khmer Rouge. Did he really think that the KR leaders would forgive him, trust him, and make him a full partner? Was it arrogance, or was it just plain stupidity? Like so many men who who were hungry for power, Sihanouk had tried to hang onto power for too long.

Many palace buildings are restored
Once the Khmer Rouge won power, they made sure that they wouldn’t have any other rivals. So they executed many Khmer princes and princesses, Sihanouk's own relatives. They would have killed King Sihanouk as well. But due to pressure from their main patrons, the Chinese government, the KR never went through with it.

As I'm about to leave the palace, I pass a traditional Khmer percussion band, playing drums, gongs, and xylophone-like instruments. Given the luxurious buildings I’ve just seen, I can’t help but notice the immense contrast to the world outside. The king and the rest of the elite continue to live in luxury, while the people of Cambodia remain among the poorest in Asia.

Outside the palace walls are two of the King’s royal guards, standing attentively at yellow guard shacks. I’m surprised at their uniform though. They wear fancy white dress coats, with old American style helmets, also painted white. Their trousers are blue, and they wear US style combat boots. I hold back a snicker as I notice that the coat on one guard, looks to be at least two sizes too big for him.

Both sentinels stand guard holding old American M-16s, with fixed bayonets. Neither have ammunition clips in their rifles. If this old palace is ever attacked again, the best these two could do is try to stab someone! It’s a good metaphor for the present monarchy itself. These days, kings in Cambodia have no real political power. Although impressive looking, they are outdated.

Palace royal guards, with unloaded weapons
When the communist years ended and the monarchy was revived in the 1990's, Sihanouk was declared king once again. However by that time, the old monarch was more of an adviser than power player. His days at the peak of Khmer power were long over. A democratic election, and later a coup, would determine the country’s real leadership.

In 2004, after being in and out of the Cambodian political scene for most of his life, the old king did the unexpected again. 

He abdicated! 

To succeed him, his son the prince was chosen, the present King Sihamoni. The new king had been an ambassador, and a dance teacher in Europe. 

Sihanouk finally died in 2012 at the ripe old age of 89. Despite his failures, many Khmers remained faithful to him to the end. Others despised him for leading the country into death and destruction under the Khmer Rouge. 

He remains the most controversial political figure in Cambodia's history. 

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