Happy Birthday Mrs. Sihanouk!
June 18th marks the 84th birthday of Norodom Monineath Sihanouk, or as the Cambodians call her – Preah Mahaksatrey Norodom Monineath Sihanouk” (Khmer: សម្តេចព្រះមហាក្សត្រី នរោត្តម មុនិនាថ សីហនុ). They also call her Preah Voreakreach Meada Cheat Khmer”, or Mother of the Khmer Nation. But chances are you have never even heard of this rather special lady!
Born on June 18th, 1936, to a French father and a Cambodian mother, she married a certain Norodom Sihanouk, in 1952.
If you have not heard of King Sihanouk, he holds the world record for the most head of state titles in history. He became King of Cambodia in 1941, but feeling he wanted to be more involved in politics stepped down to become Prime-Minister in 1955.
As Prime-Minister, he wrestled power from his father and, despite being a royal figure, turned the country into a quasi-socialist one party constitutional monarchy! Not your average leader. In 1960 his father died, but instead of running the country as King had himself made Head of State of a Kingdom, now without a king.
All of this continued under the backdrop of the Vietnam War and the increased influence of the Khmer Rouge. In 1970 and after essentially 30 years in charge, Sihanouk was overthrown by General Lon Nol, and shit was about to hit the fan.
Persuaded by communist China Sihanouk became allies with the Khmer Rouge, leading many Cambodians to think they were fighting for a restoration of the monarchy. This was not to be the case.
In 1975 the tanks of the Khmer Rouge came crashing into the streets of Phnom Penh and the rule of the Khmer Rouge was to begin. Amazingly and although very briefly, Sihanouk was initially head of state of Democratic Kampuchea, although he quickly resigned before the start of the Killing Fields. Even at the most conservative estimates the Khmer then killed at least one quarter of the Cambodian population.
In 1979 the Vietnamese rolled in the Khmer Rouge were defeated and you’d have thought without any supporters the Khmer Rouge would have been vanquished, right? Now was time for a bit of cold war politics to take root.
Mr. Sihanouk somehow was persuaded by his friends in China to again team up with Pol Pot and the remnants of the Khmer Rouge, something he agreed to despite saying how they had “killed most of my family”.
For the next ten years Sihanouk headed the coalition against the Vietnamese installed government of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea. Ironically as the Khmer Rouge still held the UN seat of Cambodia, this made him kind of head of state again.
By the early 90’s and after a successful peace process, Sihanouk amazingly was back again this time as Head of State of the “State of Cambodia,” a transitional state, before again becoming King of Cambodia – for the last time in 1993.
Sihanouk was to remain King until his death in 2004. During this time, he was to witness the end of the Khmer Rouge insurgency, his son follow in his footsteps as Prime-Minster, before much like his father get deposed, and then finally the unstoppable rise of the Hun Sen regime.
A statesman to the end who managed to be a royal that was friends and allies with communists not only in China, but even (where he had a villa)
But for a man who saw so many changes, there was at least one constant throughout his life, Norodom Monineath Sihanouk. Whilst obviously not in the same amount of limelight as her husband, she still remained with him through good times and bad. These included being held under house arrest by the Khmer Rouge and even living for a period bizarrely in Pyongyang.
Had King Sihanouk had his way, the constitution would have been changed to allow her to become head of state after he passed, but alas it was not to be.
Nowadays, she remains largely out of the limelight, but as Mother of Cambodia, they still at least celebrate this amazing woman’s birthday.