Norodom Sihanouk, Cambodia's ex-king and Nehru friend, is dead

Norodom Sihanouk, the long-time monarch of Cambodia who once described Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru as "my greatest friend", died Monday in China.

A monarch yet a democrat, a playboy yet a benevolent ruler, Sihanouk, 90, was also one of the founders of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) with which he hoped to keep Cambodia free of Cold War rivalry.

That was not to be.
French Indochina -- Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam -- was destined for prolonged civil war against the French and then the US that left millions dead and all three societies in turbulence.

Even before the troubled decades, when he proved he was fiercely independent despite being crowned by the French at age 19, Sihanouk had befriended independent India's leaders.

His first visit to New Delhi took place in May 1956 when he said: "I am very glad to be here and to have another opportunity of meeting Nehru whom I admire very much, and who is my greatest friend."

He again came to India in January-February 1963, a year after the Sino-Indian war, and praised Nehru, whose fortunes were on the decline.

"Cambodia is deeply indebted to India; and I will add that I, for my part, am much indebted personally to India's great leader Jawaharlal Nehru.

"It was by studying his methods and teachings, and by following his sage counsels that I was able to decide upon a course of action which has assured our independence, and national unity, together with peaceful internal conditions and the respect of our sovereignty," he said Jan 25, 1963 at Rashtrapati Bhavan at a dinner held in his honour.

But the bonhomie faded as India -- under Indira Gandhi -- began leaning towards the Soviet Union while Cambodia fell into the US orbit.

And after Indira Gandhi recognised the Vietnam-backed regime that ousted the Khmer Rouge, the break was more or less complete.

Sihanouk too lost much of his original authority in his country if not charm. The Khmer Rouge, which he had backed against the Vietnamese, turned against him, placing him under house arrest.

He would have been executed in 1975 but for Chinese leader Zhou Enlai.
Sihanouk eventually moved to China. But advancing age and illnesses led to his death Monday due to natural causes at a Beijing hospital.

Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister Nhik Bun Chhay told Xinhua: "This is a great loss for Cambodia. The former king was a great king. We all respect and love him."

Born Oct 31, 1922, Sihanouk grew up in luxury and studied in Vietnam and France.
He ruled Cambodia from 1941 to 1955 and again from 1993 until his voluntary abdication in 2004 in favour of his son and current King Norodom Sihamoni.

He held many positions since 1941, including two terms as the king, two as sovereign prince, one as president, two as prime minister, and one as Cambodia's non-titled head of state.

He was named the Father of Independence, Territorial Integrity and Khmer Unification.
Sihanouk's actual period of effective rule over Cambodia was from Nov 9, 1953 when France granted independence to the country, until March 18, 1970 when Lon Nol and the National Assembly deposed him.

When Sihanouk was picked as king, Cambodia was part of French Indochina.
After the country became independent in March 1955, Sihanouk abdicated in favour of his father.

He became the prime minister months later, having obtained an overwhelming victory in the parliamentary elections of 1955.

His second coronation took place Sep 24, 1993. He abdicated a second time in October 2004.

In March 1970, after Lon Nol deposed him while he was abroad, Sihanouk fled to Beijing, then to North Korea.

Sihanouk returned to Cambodia Nov 14, 1991 after 13 years in exile. In 1993, he again became the king of Cambodia.

Ill health forced him to travel repeatedly to Beijing for treatment. Eventually, the man of many interests - he wrote music and composed songs in Khmer, French and English for movies - made China his home, only to die there.

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