Ousted as Cambodia’s chief of state in a 1970 coup, chubby Prince Norodom Sihanouk was denounced as an extravagant, unpredictable egotist. Little in the intervening years, during his comfortable exile in China, would contradict such a temperate assessment. But whatever his eccentricities, the mercurial prince is a figure to reckon with. Should today’s wobbly Cambodian regime topple, Sihanouk probably would surface as his country’s head of state once again. Though the 52-year-old leader does not minimize the weakness in an alliance between himself and his former enemies among the insurgent Khmer Rouge, he shrugs off the danger. “I am not a coward man,” he says, his high-pitched voice breaking into habitual nervous giggles, “and I do not fear the killing of Sihanouk. So if the Khmer Rouge will be happy to kill Sihanouk, I will be happy to be killed also, if that is the price of having them liberate Cambodia.”
When Sihanouk was overthrown five years ago this month, Chinese Premier Chou En-lai welcomed him with open arms. Recognizing the popular prince’s usefulness as an eventual figurehead ruler in Cambodia, the Chinese provided a lavish, sprawling compound in suburban Peking for Sihanouk and his cardboard government-in-exile.
The prince’s entourage now numbers nearly 100, of whom 20, including his wife and four children, live in his official residence—a 30-room mansion that was once the French embassy. There, behind gray stucco walls and a portal guarded by soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army, the Chinese have provided seven chefs and a battery of waiters and waitresses. When Chou learned Sihanouk had to drive to the suburbs to swim or play badminton, he ordered an indoor pool and gym built within the compound.
It is a restrained existence by Sihanouk’s former standards, but one he now claims to appreciate. “I must confess,” he says, “I have more esteem for the Sihanouk of now, and despise somewhat the Sihanouk of the past. Before, I spent too much time playing with my mistresses. Now I am like a Buddha. I am faithful to my wife. I have no love adventures, no sports cars and no dancing parties.”
Indeed, his present life is a great contrast to his old one. The French chose him as Cambodia’s puppet king in 1941. But after the French left Indochina in 1953, he artfully kept the opposition divided, and overcame health problems—persistent obesity and high blood pressure—to dominate every aspect of Cambodian life. An aspiring saxophone player and accordionist, he wrote weepy ballads that, not surprisingly, shot to the top of the Cambodian hit parade. A pudgy 5’4″, he captained his own soccer, volleyball and basketball teams and cranked out a series of turgid movie melodramas—naturally starring himself and family members—which he unblushingly inflicted on Phnom Penh’s uneasy diplomatic community.
Corruption was rampant when he ruled Cambodia. At a time when he professed neutrality in the Vietnam war, his nation was conducting a profitable trade in arms, food and medicine with the Vietcong in Cambodia.
Sihanouk’s private life was equally untidy. Believed to have married six times, he sired 14 children, including two by his current wife, the handsome, half-Cambodian, half-Italian Princess Monique. He maintained scores of tall, shapely mistresses, a point his successors underscored in 1970 when they published a photo of Sihanouk and a naked young woman.
None of this history, however, seems to have disturbed his puritanical Chinese hosts. Financed by them and using Peking as his base, Sihanouk has traveled widely, winning recognition of his phantom government from more than 50 countries. Between trips the prince spends his days praying at a small Buddhist shrine, poring over huge piles of newspapers and magazines, issuing proclamations about Cambodia’s future, and meeting with diplomats and correspondents in one-sided conferences that ramble on for hours (which Sihanouk makes more bearable by serving French champagne). At the end of the day, often near midnight, he plays badminton with aides or swims a few lengths in his heated pool. Trying gamely to keep his weight within range of the 163 pounds Chinese doctors have prescribed for him, Sihanouk bravely foregoes breakfast and dinner. Still he finds time to dabble in the kitchen, schooling the chefs in such gourmet favorites as Caneton Tour d’Argent, or whipping up his own banana crepe, bombe Sihanouk.
In line with his self-proclaimed regeneration, the prince has taken to denouncing the present Cambodian regime for the moral decline of Phnom Penh. “Perhaps I encouraged a general joie de vivre,” he concedes, “but orgies—never! The city is like Pompeii before the volcano.” As for the Khmer Rouge, Sihanouk maintains: “I have seen their work in the liberated zones. And though they may not love me, I admire them sincerely. They are honest. They are patriots. And their administration is very successful. Theirs will be a very pure society—perhaps less gay than the society under Sihanouk, but pure.”
Curiously, though Sihanouk endorses a Communist Cambodia, he is not a Communist himself. “I’ve never read a line of Marx, Engels or Lenin,” he says. “When I told Chairman Mao I was too old to become a Communist, he said ‘You’re never too old.’ It’s possible, but I am a Buddhist, and not even Sihanouk can be a Buddhist and a Communist at the same time.”
Though observers tend to be skeptical, the prince has vowed to reign only as a symbol of unity. He plans to spend just one month a year in Cambodia. “One month to say, ‘Bonjour’ to people, to receive credentials from ambassadors and to sign the laws,” he says.
He says he will live outside the country the rest of the year. “Like de Gaulle, I will write my memoirs,” he promises grandly. “Like Queen Elizabeth, I admire horses, so I may attend some races in France. I shall write music. I shall make movies. I shall be free to be Sihanouk!”