Thursday, February 26, 2009

In Sihanouk's words: the Cambodian monarch's private archives

PARIS, Feb 25, 2009 (AFP) - In meticulously labelled boxes piled on shelves in an old Paris building lies the hidden story of Cambodia's King Norodom Sihanouk, his personal chronicle of 30 years of Khmer suffering and death.

This file picture taken on Feb. 24, 1995 shows King Norodom Sihanouk praying during a Buddhist ceremony at Wat Mony Prasittivong outside Phnom Penh (AFP photo / files)

After abdicating in 2004, the self-proclaimed "king-father" of the country, now aged 87, handed France his personal archives last January for safe-keeping at the National Archive.

"Rarely does a foreign head of state give archives to another country," said Olivier de Bernon, head researcher at the Far-East French Institute (EFEO) and the first to browse the "historically significant" papers.

"The archives were never in Cambodia, but came directly from Sihanouk's home in Beijing," said de Bernon.

It took him two years, with the help of two researchers and an archivist, to sift through the king's 10,000 photographs and one million documents. An inventory of the "Sihanouk Fund" is to be published this year.

Destroyed by later regimes, no personal records remain of Sihanouk's first reign, coronation or childhood. The Paris archives cover the later agitated times that followed Lon Nol's pro-American coup which overthrew Sihanouk on March 18, 1970.

Among the gems are a photograph of Sihanouk's resignation speech as head of state of the Khmer Rouge regime on April 2, 1976 and pictures of North Korea, where he was invited by the country's founder, the late Kim Il-Sung.

Head of state turned political prisoner, Sihanouk spent 1976-79 under house arrest in his Phnom Pen palace with Queen Monique.

A one-time sympathiser of the extremist Cambodian communist movement nicknamed "the red prince" during the Vietnam War, it was the king himself who came up with the name "Khmer Rouge" in 1960.

But de Bernon said Sihanouk was never a supporter of the extremists, with five of his children and 14 grandchildren killed under the murderous Khmer Rouge regime, which left a total of two million Cambodians dead.

"The king was in Beijing from April to September 1975 and was only in power for a year under the Khmer Rouge before resigning. It was only in 1977, like many others, that he understood how the regime operated, and in fact high-ranking Chinese officials had to intervene to ensure he wasn't killed," said de Bernon.

Letters signed Zhou Enlai, Malraux, Arafat, Mandela or Reagan are among Sihanouk's letters.

One from actress Jane Fonda congratulates him for the Khmer Rouge victory and offers to take up their cause in the US.

"Sihanouk has a literary style that shines through in his letters, speeches and thousands of drafts," said de Bernon.

A workaholic with a wide variety of interests, Sihanouk wrote poems, songs and even recipes, and played the saxophone and piano. He could sing in a dozen languages, sometimes for four or five hours at a time, and shot dozens of films glorifying Cambodia.


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