On Cambodia, the Death of a King and France

Apologies in advance for what is more a random set of thoughts stringed together rather than a proper blog post with an overarching point …

Back in October 2012, former King Norodom Sihanouk passed away in Beijing at 89 years old. King Sihanouk’s rule – which lasted decades and is rather controversial – is summarized well by the New York Times:

King Sihanouk was crowned in 1941, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was president, and held on to some form of power for the next 60-plus years. He served as monarch, prime minister, figurehead of the Communist revolution, leader in exile, and once again as monarch until he abdicated in 2004. He handed the crown to one of his sons, Norodom Sihamoni, after which he was known as the retired king, or the king-father.

He survived colonial wars, the Khmer Rouge and the intrigues of the cold war, but his last years were marked by expressions of melancholy, and he complained often about the poverty and abuses of what he called “my poor nation.”

Alternately charming and ruthless, he dazzled world leaders with his political wit and, in the process, raised the stature of his small Southeast Asian nation. He won independence for Cambodia from the French colonial rulers in 1953, using diplomacy and repression to outmaneuver his domestic rivals but without resorting to war, as his neighbors in Vietnam had done.

After a three-month mourning period, the funeral is now taking place on Monday (February 4th). Between 1 and 2 million people are expected in Phnom Penh. This morning (Friday), the King’s body was moved from the Royal Palace to the, where he will be cremated on Monday. There had been talk that there would be elephants in the procession but that turned out to be just a rumor. I for one avoided the procession given Cambodia’s poor record with crowd control. For those of us missing out, the Cambodia Daily is providing pretty good coverage. There’s also some good photos on CNN.

In addition to hordes of people from all over the country, many representatives of foreign governments are expected to attend, including the French Prime Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault. According to the French Embassy in Cambodia, he’ll be here on Sunday and Monday, and meeting privately with current King Norodom Sihamoni and the Queen Mother AND meeting with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. I wonder if the meeting with everyone’s favorite PM will be just as awkward as when President Obama was in town, where he avoided photo ops and Hun Sen creepily grinned in the background.

Appropriately nicknamed the Kingdom of Wonder (because there are really things that make you wonder on a daily basis …), Cambodia is a former French colony, having been part of French Indochina with Laos and Vietnam. According to the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, France is the 5th largest global donor to Cambodia and the second highest European donor, having given 29 million euros in 2009. French aid money goes in large to restoration projects in the Angkor Wat archeological park and judicial sector reform (the Cambodian legal system is in large part based on the French system).

There are still important links between France and Cambodia, especially some that touch directly on the human rights situation. For instance, Mam Sonando, owner of independent radio station Beehive Radio – who was sentenced in 20 years in jail on spurious charges of secessionism in 2012 – has dual French and Cambodian citizenships.

However, especially in comparison to France’s former colonies in Africa, there seem to be less and less French influence left. The most obvious iteration of that may be the fact that it’s rare to meet someone who still speaks French these days; although some university degrees are still taught in French, for the large part, English is the preferred language to learn. The growing influence of China in Cambodia – which is having widespread impact on all aspects of Cambodian society – is also negating the influence of other countries, including France.

Nevertheless, it would be good to see France take a stronger stance on issues related to human rights and democratization in Cambodia. Hopefully the US’ strong stance – which was made quite obvious during President Obama’s visit here last November – will set the tone. So far though, France doesn’t seem to be following suit. Laurent Fabius, the current French Minister of Foreign Affairs, just received on January 25th Sok An, the Cambodian Vice-Prime Minister. There hasn’t been much coverage of the outcome of that meeting but the picture doesn’t seem to indicate that the meeting was “tense” (which was how Obama’s meeting with Hun Sen was described). I can’t imagine Jean-Marc Ayrault will speak on human rights issues with Hun Sen on Sunday given the context of his visit, but it would be nice if France became more vocal on the situation here in the long-term.

If those interested in reading more about the French-Cambodian relationship, local English-language newspaper the Cambodia Daily issued a Supplement on French-Cambodian relations in 2006, which has loads of really interesting pieces on the topic.

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