Cambodia: How the Dead Live

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Author: Nicholas Shakespeare

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For those curious to observe a demigod in the flesh, the body of Norodom Sihanouk lay on display in Phnom Penh until 4 February, when it was cremated. The outpouring of grief at the passing of Cambodia’s “King Father”, who ruled the country after its independence from France in 1953, brought hundreds of thousands of mourners on to the streets, some discerning his protean features in the rising half-moon.

The Guinness Book of Records nominated Sihanouk during his phase on earth as the politician who had held more official positions and titles than anyone. After his death on 15 October 2012, at the age of 89, television stations made continuous broadcasts of historic footage of Sihanouk from the 1960s, when he dominated Cambodia as its prince, prime minister and head of state. This was the period, now regarded by many as a golden age, when the saying that “Sihanouk is Cambodia” was perhaps truest.

It was also the time when my family lived there – until Sihanouk chucked us out. In March 1964, in an act of petulant frustration, he ordered a mob to attack the British embassy, where my father, John Shakespeare, worked as a diplomat. In an incident largely unreported at the time, given that western journalists were banned from Phnom Penh, the chancery offices were ransacked, eight cars were destroyed, the apartment of the head of the British Council was burned down, and the large freezer in which embassy staff kept sausages was raided. “Rocks and bricks came smashing through the windows and, most terrifying of all, frozen legs of lamb,” my father remembers.

Sihanouk was furious at the British government for buckling under American pressure and impeding his cherished plan for an international conference to preserve Cambodia’s neutrality. Desperate to keep his country out of the Vietnam war, and so, in effect, out of both communist and capitalist clutches, he had hoped that Britain would reconvene the Geneva conference in April 1964 to guarantee Cambodian independence. Britain at first agreed to do this, then reneged.

In a characteristic gesture, he exempted my father – who next day was standing in the still-smouldering embassy compound when Sihanouk delivered to him a pre-dated gift of hideous silverware. Attached was a letter from “Monseigneur”, as Sihanouk was also known, paying tribute to my father’s “obvious capacity to approach complex Asian problems with an open mind”.

Only a few days before the trashing of the embassy, Sihanouk had invited my father to join his small entourage on a private “peace mission” to Malaysia and Indonesia. What my father remembers vividly about their week together was not the military band that welcomed Sihanouk by striking up one of his compositions for saxophone, “Brise de Nov­embre”; nor the valet who was detailed to brush the divine dandruff from the royal collar; nor Sihanouk’s scathing remarks about President Sukarno’s weakness for women; nor even his sexual confidences – “I, too, have made love in my time”. The image that lingered instead was that of the aide-de-camp who followed Sihanouk wherever he went, holding a silver casket that contained the ashes of the prince’s favourite daughter.

Cambodia is a country where it is believed that the spirits – royal ones especially – live on. The spirit of his four-year-old daughter Kantha Bopha, who had died of leukaemia in 1952, tracked the King Father in the way that he is likely to go on haunting his successors.

No one shaped Cambodia’s character and destiny more flamboyantly than the saxophone-playing, film-directing Playboy Prince. As Sihanouk joked to my father, he had “played” until ten years earlier – until Cambodia’s independence – because the French would not let him work. “But now I work all the time, as you can confirm to your government.”

We swiftly discovered, fleeing with our belongings to the Thai border, that Sihanouk’s friendly grin concealed a vein of ruthlessness. “We can smile,” he said of his people, “but we can also kill.” A general in the French colonial army told my father that the Cambodians were by far the bravest and most brutal of his troops, and Sihanouk had ambitions to be seen in this light. Weeks after we left, he ordered the execution of a dissident supported by South Vietnam to be filmed and projected in all cinemas. Further, in his overriding project to keep the country out of the Vietnam war, he started to treat Cambodia like one of his movies.

Starting roughly from the time of our departure, the idea of making films consumed him to the exclusion of other responsibilities. His biographer Milton Osborne judged that this obsession with cinema, which resulted in the Phnom Penh International Film Festival (in which Sihanouk’s entry routinely won first prize), had “real political consequences”, as it allowed his US-backed, bombastic prime minister (and, incidentally, our landlord) General Lon Nol to manoeuvre himself into power while Sihanouk’s attention was diverted and created the conditions for Cambodia’s ensuing catastrophe.

A trivial and little-known episode ignited this film mania. His mob had attacked the British embassy a week after Peter O’Toole finished shooting Lord Jim near Angkor Wat. Charles Meyer, a mysterious Frenchman who had accompanied my father as part of Sihanouk’s entourage, appeared on location one day and “darkly advised” the director, Richard Brooks, to get his company out of Cambodia by 12 March. O’Toole was convinced that some of the rioters had worked as extras in the film. In America soon afterwards, O’Toole sounded off on The Tonight Show and in Life magazine, complaining how he and his wife had had to hide in a lavatory and how he had found a snake in his soup. “If I live to be a thousand,” he said, “I want nothing like Cambodia again. It was a bloody nightmare.”

Back in Phnom Penh, these remarks incensed Sihanouk. In one of his interminable radio speeches, he denounced O’Toole’s comments as further evidence that western governments were conspiring against his country. “Stew made from snake’s meat, scorpions lurking in boots, the poverty of the people . . . that is the image of Cambodia current in the four corners of the globe.”

A different image was needed. Faithful to his reputation as the Pioneer Prince, Sihan­ouk announced that he had decided to take up the challenge: “For who is more qualified to provide such a real picture of present-day Cambodia?”

Incredible to relate, from 1964 until his overthrow in 1970 by the palindromic Lon Nol, while Sihanouk was on a visit to Moscow to seek Russian support, Sihanouk directed his best energies, energies that he ought properly to have devoted to the affairs of his dis­integrating country, into shooting a series of anthologisably bad feature films.

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