Cambodian Reflections

One night early last week, I joined thousands of Cambodians outside the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh as mourning continued for the late King Father, Norodom Sihanouk, who had died in Beijing a few days earlier. The rain was sloshing down in the late wet season throes, authorities had cordoned off the Palace area so that only pedestrians could get near, and torrents of water carried along all the debris left by the crowds going and coming. Packed cars, motor bikes (some with the inevitable four or five people aboard) and tuktuks made slow progress towards the barriers so that snack, flower and incense vendors did good trade with passengers having time to make purchases before going to pay their respects.

In front of the Palace entrance a giant photograph of the King Father was surrounded by the lights that always outline the perimeter. The road immediately outside and the park that stretches back to the Tonle Sap River were jammed. People everywhere were taking flowers up to a wall along from the Palace entrance where a couple of attendants were run off their feet piling the gifts high on others already given. Elsewhere, mourners were on their knees in the wet, offering incense and prayers to the departing soul. There were few umbrellas even though the rain continued heavily, but many people wore the plastic covers that always come out when the rains start. Here and there in the crowd, groups of two or three monks were surrounded by and leading other Cambodians in prayer. All lit incense at the many burners available.

Norodom Sihanouk died a few days shy of his ninetieth birthday, during the Pchum Benh festival when Cambodians remember and honour their ancestors. When his body was returned from China, where he had been based and was receiving medical treatment for many years, over a million people overwhelmed the route from airport to Palace. That journey takes close to an hour on most days, so on this one it took a long time for the Palace to be reached and the formal mourning begin.

The day after I was there, and at the end of this initial first period of mourning (the King Father now lies in state for three months), King Norodom Sihamoni and his mother, Sihanouk’s widow Norodom Monineath Sihanouk, both emerged from the Palace to join the throng. Dressed simply but impeccably in white and wearing the black ribbons that were ubiquitous all over Cambodia, they mixed freely with the crowds, giving their security officials a hard time keeping track of them. It was the perfect demonstration of how highly regarded the royal family is by the Cambodian public, and of the close bond that exists between monarchs and citizens in this highly complex political entity now effectively ruled by Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Norodom Sihanouk’s legacy is just as complex, and will take time to sort out but some observers see historical airbrushing already. His personal life was complex, to say the least, with several relationships producing children so that keeping track of the networks can be bewildering. As anyone who was around in the 60s and the 70s, or even earlier will recall, he figured in the global press both as a political and a social figure. Now, however, a former private secretary has taken issue with the “playboy” image, suggesting his boss was a quiet man who liked to spend his evenings at home. ( ).

It is in the political sphere, however, that the legacy will be most puzzled about. Here was a man who served as King from 1941 until 1955, then again from 1993 until 2004. In between those spells he held a wide range of posts as Prime Minister, President and even leader in exile. Afterwards he was always still in the political mix, including as King Father. Perhaps his single greatest achievement will be seen as the ending of French rule and winning Cambodian independence, because his influence and actions through that period were instrumental in reaching the new order. After that, though, the story takes more twists and turns, especially when considering the development progress made by Cambodia since 1953.

His regimes were strong, in that he exercised power vigorously and was probably as ruthless towards critics as have been some of his successors. Much of the elite control of areas like education and the civil service and government remained, and Cambodian development was slow, to say the least. Once he was deposed as ruler by General Lon Nol in 1970 and he began his long relationship with China, Cambodia entered the phase that led to the terrible years of the Khmer Rouge, the Vietnamese and Chinese “liberations”, the disastrous United Nations presence in the early 1990s and the rise of Hun Sen and the dominant Cambodian People’s Party. Through all that, Norodom Sihanouk was constantly seeking alliances, frequently with parties he thought of previously as mortal enemies. The twists and turns, that often involved deals or collapsed deals with relatives and direct family, made Cambodia one of the most entangled polities in the world.

Meanwhile, general conditions remained stagnant. Last year, an important if sometimes questionable book appeared on the Cambodian story, written by Joel Brinkley. ( ). Brinkley is now a journalism professor at Stanford after a distinguished foreign affairs newspaper career. He is the son of the legendary David Brinkley, a major force in American newspaper and later television reporting for four decades. Joel Brinkley visited Cambodia on assignment in the 1970s, then over thirty years later revisited the country, and did not like what he saw. The book is a journalist’s book, in some respects, in that it identifies a theme then elaborates it unswervingly. There is not much nuance: Brinkley sees a nation that should have done much better by now. In his view, the fact it has not is down to a long-term political culture, of which Norodom Sihanouk was a part, combined with a self-serving and, in his view, craven set of development agencies that have done little to turn the national direction.

Interestingly enough, a similar but more scholarly approach appeared almost simultaneously with Norodom Sihanouk’s death. ( ). Sophal Ear escaped from Cambodia with his mother at the onset of the Khmer Rouge terror, was educated and brought up in France then the United States, and because of that background has become interested as an academic in the impact of aid and development on his country of birth. It is a more controlled and elaborate book than Brinkley’s, and if anything places even more responsibility for what has happened on development agencies like the World Bank and the Asian development Bank, among others.

Cambodia’s position and future is interwoven inextricably with foreign aid, as it has been now for over twenty years. The political system that has emerged is an integral part of that, and what the past couple of weeks have demonstrated is that for the Cambodian people, the monarchy is a strong element in the mix. While I was walking among the crowd, in the rain, a group of young people there to pay their respects came up and handed me a bottle of water and thanked me for being there. This crowd was as much a young as an old one. That sort of gesture does not appear in Joel Brinkley’s book but I am sure he experienced it somewhere in his travels, a reminder of just how intricate and layered a society Cambodia is and that promises even more ahead.

2 Responses to “Cambodian Reflections”
  1. Max Walsh says:

    As usual Brian, you have alerted us distant observers (and sometimes fleeting visitors/tourists) to the intricate webs and twisted connections that exist in Cambodia (and that you also identified within Syria in your recent excellent e-book.entitled “A House In Damascus).
    We depend on news reports from countries such as Cambodia that are often skewed one way or another by authors or that take a premise (that is sometimes inaccurate) and develop it so thoroughly that it almost seems authentic.
    Your personal experiences as an “embedded observer” working at a senior government level are terribly important to those of us who care about the “real people” in these countries.
    My recent experience in Phnom Penh, albeit short, revealed to me the incredible warmth that exists within the populace and exposed some of the myriad of stories about individuals that must be told.
    Your blog is a start towards that happening, and I hope the large numbers of expats working with international agencies and NGOs will join with you and keep us apprised about life in Cambodia through similar blogs and social networking outlets.

  2. Thanks very much Max. Every place is complex, of course, but it seems to me the layers and swirls here are up there with the best of them. I think I was a little disappointed with the brinkley book for that reason: it is just a touch too one dimensional, with no real sense of why outsiders commit here so strongly in spite of the blockages and obstacles and problems. Sometimes that sense departs all of us at least momentarily, but somehow the dynamics return to be compelling

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