PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – He was many things to the Cambodia he helped navigate through half a century of war and genocide – revered independence hero, ruthless monarch and prime minister, communist collaborator, eccentric playboy, avid filmmaker.
Most of all, perhaps, Cambodia’s former King Norodom Sihanouk was a cunning political survivor who reinvented himself repeatedly throughout his often flamboyant life.
On Monday, aged 89, Sihanouk died of a heart attack in Beijing, where he had been receiving medical treatment since January for a variety of ailments.
First crowned king by the French in 1941 at the age of 18, Sihanouk saw his Southeast Asian nation transformed from colony to kingdom, from U.S.-backed regime to U.S. bombing zone, from Khmer Rouge killing field to what it remains today – a fragile experiment in democracy.
He ruled as a feudal-style absolute monarch, but called himself a democrat. He was a man who sang love songs at elaborate state dinners, brought his French poodle to peace talks, and charmed foreign dignitaries such as Jacqueline Kennedy.
He also painted, fielded a palace soccer team, composed music and led his own jazz band. His appetite extended to fast cars, food and women.
When the murderous Khmer Rouge seized power in the 1970s, he was reviled as their collaborator. Yet he himself ended up as their prisoner and lost five of his children to the regime. Later, in the 1990s – after a U.N.-brokered deal to end Cambodia’s long civil war – he recast himself as a peacemaker and constitutional monarch.
In the twilight of his life, Sihanouk suffered colon cancer, diabetes and hypertension.
Prince Sisowath Thomico, a royal family member who also was Sihanouk’s assistant and nephew, said the former king passed away before dawn Monday.
His death was a great loss to Cambodia, Thomico said, adding that Sihanouk had dedicated his life for the sake of his entire nation, country and for the Cambodian people.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon sent condolences and acknowledged Sihanouk’s long dedication to his country and his legacy as a unifying national leader who is revered by Cambodians and respected internationally, U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said.
The secretary-general also hopes that the legacy of the former king will allow Cambodia to advance the national healing process, including through continued commitment to justice, Nesirky said.
In 2004, Sihanouk abdicated the throne, citing his poor health. The move paved the way for his son Norodom Sihamoni to take his place.
On Monday, Sihamoni flew to China with Prime Minister Hun Sen to retrieve Sihanouk’s body. State flags flew at half-staff, and Cambodian government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said a week of official mourning would be held once the former king’s body is repatriated on Wednesday.