PHNOM PENH (AFP) - Behind the image of an eccentric monarch who moved with the political tides, former king Norodom Sihanouk, who has died aged 89, never stopped trying to preserve the unity of war-ravaged Cambodia.
Twice exiled and twice returned to the throne during a life almost as tempestuous as his country's history, Sihanouk abruptly abdicated in 2004, as old age and poor health took their toll on the colourful monarch.
But it was far from the first time the royal's unpredictability caught observers off guard, after he repeatedly backed different regimes, including the murderous Khmer Rouge.
"Sihanouk is Cambodia," his official biographer, Julio Jeldres, once said of the former king.
He had been plagued by poor health in the final years of his life, including cancer and diabetes, and frequently spent long spells being treated in China, where he died early on Monday.
A self-described "naughty boy" with a taste for life's pleasures and an artistic flair, Prince Sihanouk embraced the intrigue that swirled around his kingdom with the gusto of a character from one of the dozens of films he made.
The playboy-monarch married six times and fathered 14 children. Aside from his cinematic creations he wrote poetry and composed songs.
But he was far from frivolous, emerging as a shrewd survivor who caught friend and foe alike off guard with charm and political wit.
A boy of just 18 when placed on the throne in 1941 by French colonial authorities, Sihanouk quickly defied his patron's expectations for a pliant king.
Twelve years later he gained Cambodia's independence and shortly after quit the throne in favour of his father, Prince Norodom Suramarit, to pursue a career in politics.
He served as premier half a dozen times, repeatedly leaving the post with a characteristic flash of angry theatre over perceived slights, until finally becoming "head of state" following the death of his father in 1960.
In the decade that followed, he presided over a period of rare stability, helping to forge a modern nation.
His frequent public appearances - Prince Sihanouk seemed to relish working alongside rural villagers on various public works projects - formed in the minds of his people an unbreakable bond between the man and the country he reigned over.
Toppled in a US-backed coup by one of his own generals, Lon Nol, in 1970, the prince, who was in exile in Beijing, then made what was likely his most controversial decision.
He aligned himself with communist guerillas who later emerged as the Khmer Rouge, the movement that was later to cast Cambodia into a frenzy of killing and devastation.
The guerillas used Prince Sihanouk as a figurehead, drawing on his popularity for support during their ferocious five-year war against Lon Nol.
When they took the capital, Phnom Penh in 1975, the Khmer Rouge promptly emptied the city, exiling millions to vast collective farms and setting the country on the path to destruction in their drive to create an agrarian utopia.
Prince Sihanouk returned from China and temporarily remained head of state but was forced by the Khmer Rouge to resign a year later and kept under house arrest in the royal palace with his family.
He was unable to stop the bloodletting that left up to two million people, including five of his children, dead by the time Vietnamese troops and Khmer Rouge defectors ousted the regime in 1979.
Prince Sihanouk survived because China, a key backer of the Khmer Rouge, wanted him alive and he fled to Beijing after the regime crumbled, living in villas there and in Pyongyang, North Korea - another ally of the monarch's - for the next 13 years.
Always by his side was his sixth wife Monique, an Italian-Cambodian he married in 1952.
The ever-mercurial Prince Sihanouk condemned the Khmer Rouge, but during the 1980s he served as a figurehead leader of a resistance coalition that included remnants of the regime.
He pushed relentlessly for peace, though, opening negotiations with Prime Minister Hun Sen's government after Vietnamese troops withdrew from Cambodia in 1989.
Prince Sihanouk's strength of will is largely credited with making the 1991 UN-sponsored peace accords possible, paving the way for Cambodia's first democratic elections two years later.
It was also in 1993 that Prince Sihanouk re-ascended the throne after almost four decades.
Despite his later abdication, he remained the moral anchor for Cambodians and often used his personal website to comment on political matters.
SIHANOUK - IN HIS OWN WORDS
“I am Sihanouk and all Cambodians are my children.”
“The Khmer Rouge do not like me at all, and I know that. Ooh, la, la ... It is clear to me. When they no longer need me, they will spit me out like a cherry pit.”
"The humble people of Cambodia are the most wonderful in the world. Their great
misfortune is that they always have terrible leaders who make them suffer. I am not sure that I was much better myself, but perhaps I was the least bad.”
“I never thought of film-making as a simple amusement or artistic activity. I wanted, and still want, to show my country, its past and contemporary history, its culture, its people,
and express my feelings regarding certain facets of our nation’s life. The star of my films is never an actor. It is always Cambodia.”
"Lengthy longevity bears on me like an unbearable weight."
SIHANOUK - LIFE AND TIMES
Here are the major events that shaped Cambodia during Sihanouk’s life.
Oct 31 1922: Prince Norodom Sihanouk is born.
Apr 25 1941: Colonial power France installs Sihanouk on the throne,
mistakenly believing he will be easily managed.
Nov 9 1953: France grants Cambodia independence, a victory for Sihanouk.
Mar 2 1955: Sihanouk abdicates to pursue a career in politics and his
father Norodom Suramarit is named king. Sihanouk becomes prime minister several
times over the years.
Apr 3 1960: Sihanouk is elected as head of state after the death of his
Mar 18 1970: Sihanouk is deposed in a US-backed coup by General Lon Nol,
who establishes a republic. Exiled in China, Sihanouk aligns himself with the
Khmer Rouge and urges Cambodians to join in their guerrilla war against the new
Apr 17 1975: The Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, march into Phnom Penh,
beginning a reign of terror that would leave up to two million people dead from
starvation, overwork or execution.
Sep 9 1975: Sihanouk returns as head of state but resigns a few months
later and is placed under “palace arrest” by the hardline communist regime.
Jan 6 1979: Sihanouk is evacuated to Beijing on the eve of the invasion
by Vietnamese forces that oust the Khmer Rouge. Civil war begins, pitting the Khmer Rouge, nationalists and royalists against each other.
June 22 1982: From exile, Sihanouk becomes president of the anti-Vietnamese
coalition government of Democratic Kampuchea, which includes his newly
created FUNCINPEC party and the Khmer Rouge.
Jan 14 1985: Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge cadre who defected, is
appointed as prime minister of Cambodia’s Vietnam-installed government.
Sep 27 1989: Vietnamese troops withdraw under international pressure.
Oct 23 1991: Paris peace agreement is signed, giving the UN authority to
supervise a ceasefire and democratic elections.
Nov 14 1991: Sihanouk makes a triumphant return to Cambodia after nearly
13 years in exile.
May 23 1993: UN-sponsored elections are held and the royalist FUNCINPEC party
receives 47 percent of the vote, ahead of Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party
Sep 24 1993: Sihanouk returns to the throne under a new constitution
transforming the country into a constitutional monarchy, which allows for the
king to reign but not rule. His son Norodom Ranariddh is elected as first prime minister and Hun Sen is named second prime minister, under UN pressure. The following month Sihanouk makes first of many trips to Beijing for medical treatment after being diagnosed with B-cell lymphoma, a cancer affecting blood cells crucial to the immune system.
July7 1994: The Khmer Rouge are outlawed.
Jul 5-6 1997: Hun Sen ousts Ranariddh in a widely condemned move that leads
to deadly factional street fighting.
Apr 15 1998: Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot dies.
Aug 10 2001: Sihanouk promulgates a law creating a UN-backed tribunal to
bring Khmer Rouge leaders to justice.
Oct 7 2004: In a surprise announcement, Sihanouk abdicates, citing poor
health and a wish to ensure a stable transition to a new monarch.
Oct 14 2004: Sihanouk’s 51-year-old son Norodom Sihamoni, a former dancer
and Cambodia’s representative to UNESCO, is named the new king.
May 2005:: Sihanouk writes on his website that the cancer that began in his
prostate has recurred in his stomach.
Jun 22 2009: Sihanouk says on his website that he has been successfully
treated for a third bout of cancer In October, he he says he has lived too long and wishes to die.
Oct 20 2011: During a ceremony to mark the 20th anniversary of his return
from exile, Sihanouk vows not to leave Cambodia again despite his health
Jan 19 2012: Sihanouk heads back to Beijing for medical treatment.
Oct 15 2012: Sihanouk dies in Beijing.