Two weeks ago, Princess Norodom Ouk Phalla was on the cusp of a new stage in life: vying for a parliamentary seat in upcoming national elections.
If voted in, her new status as a National Assembly member would have completed her transformation from classical Apsara dancer to consummate political spouse. Princess Ouk Phalla stood at the top of the Funcinpec Party candidacy list for Prey Veng, and by all accounts was excited to continue supporting her husband, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, in a more active role.
But that dream vanished on June 17 when a sport-utility vehicle carrying Princess Ouk Phalla and her husband to a campaign rally in Preah Sihanouk province collided head-on with a taxi.
It was their second horrific road accident in the past three years. Prince Ranariddh made a bumpy return to politics in 2015, and soon afterward his car was hit by a taxi, badly hurting the princess, who sustained a head injury that took months to recover from.
Still, she managed to make a full recovery and take her fledgling steps toward entering politics. But this time, luck was not on her side. While Prince Ranariddh survived this month’s accident with severe injuries, Princess Ouk Phalla could not. About three hours after the 9 a.m. collision, the princess was pronounced dead. She was 38 and is survived by two sons as well as Prince Ranariddh.
From Royal Dancer to Royal Wife
In the late 1990s, as Prince Norodom Ranariddh was ousted from his prime ministerial post after factional fighting with forces loyal to the Cambodian People’s Party, a young dancer named Ouk Phalla was making a name for herself due to the beauty of her work with the palace’s attached ballet company.
Princess Norodom Bophadevi, the only sister of Prince Ranariddh, served as a mentor for Ouk Phalla during her early years as an Apsara dancer. The rising ballet star wed then-Tourism Minister Veng Sereyvuth, a senior member of the Funcinpec Party, but their marriage was short-lived.
By the turn of the millennium, Ouk Phalla was one of the country’s most prominent Apsara dancers. It is believed that she started an affair with Prince Ranariddh during the production of Raja Bori (Royal City), a 2002 film financed and directed by the prince himself in which Ouk Phalla starred as the lead actress.
Their first son, Norodom Sothearith, was born in 2003 when Prince Ranariddh was still formally in his first marriage with Princess Norodom Marie, whom he married in the late 1960s. Princess Marie filed an adultery lawsuit against the Prince three years later in 2006, adding yet another obstacle to his declining political career.
Prince Ranariddh’s relationship with Ouk Phalla came to light in early 2006, and Prime Minister Hun Sen seized on it as an excuse to publicly blast Funcinpec officials for allowing their wives and mistresses to interfere in state work. Hun Sen singled out one of these women, as a “demonic fox,” as did Tourism Minister Thong Khon in announcing the firing of the princess’s brother-in-law, Chan Dara.
That same year, the Prince was unseated from his role in Funcinpec in what he called a “party coup” led by General Nhek Bun Chhay, a series of events that ultimately forced him into exile in Malaysia in fear of arrest.
Princess Marie’s infidelity lawsuit was filed just weeks after the country’s first law criminalizing adultery was pushed through the National Assembly. The legislation was seen by many as directly targeting Prince Ranariddh’s relationship with Ouk Phalla.
Still, members of the royal family came to his defense, most notably King Father Norodom Sihanouk, who asked his adopted son, Prince Sisowath Thomico to produce a film on the topic of mistresses in Cambodia.
“The purpose of the movie is to say that every Cambodian has a mistress... No fuss should be made about having a mistress in Cambodia,” said Prince Thomico at the time. “That is a very natural thing.
Prince Ranariddh also defended his conduct, telling an interviewer in 2006 that he loved Princess Ouk Phalla and recognized their son, unlike other unnamed officials who abandoned their mistresses. He also defended polygamy as a royal tradition.
“My father had seven or eight wives and they were recognized,” he said. “The Norodom family has a firm courage and takes responsibility for the future of my son, Norodom Sothearith. I recognize my son.”
Twelve years since the adultery law was promulgated, only two people have been charged under it: Prince Ranariddh himself and his nephew, Khek Ravy, also a formerly powerful royalist figure.
The post-2006 disintegration of the royalist political movement saw relations between Prime Minister Hun Sen and the Royal Palace decline further. In 2008, Hun Sen announced that his intelligence officers had told him that an unnamed politician’s wife, a clear reference to Ouk Phalla, had threatened to gouge his eyes out if Prince Ranariddh were restored to the premiership. He announced that he had spies everywhere, even foreign countries.
As Prince Ranariddh struggled to make a comeback, Princess Ouk Phalla, who officially married the prince in 2010, accompanied him from self-imposed exile in Malaysia to an on-and-off return to the political arena. The couple had another son, Prince Norodom Ranavong, in 2011.
Prince Ranariddh was finally reinstated as the head of Funcinpec in 2015, vowing to work alongside Prime Minister Hun Sen. Princess Ouk Phalla appeared by his side at every Funcinpec rally, even dancing with him to pop songs during an event to appeal to young voters.
A New Era for Funcinpec, Now Marred by Tragedy
Last year’s controversial redistribution of the Cambodia National Rescue Party’s elected seats in the National Assembly saw Prince Ranariddh’s Funcinpec Party given 41 seats, a sudden new lease on life for the moribund party. The Prince himself became an MP for Kompong Cham province.
Muth Chantha, a former aide to Prince Ranariddh who later defected to join the CNRP, said he remembered Princess Ouk Phalla as a “supportive spouse” to the prince.
“I think she offered her best assistance to the prince, regardless of whether it was family or political affairs,” he told VOA Khmer.
“A hard-working politician cannot make any progress without support from their spouse. She contributed with ideas for party work and arranging rallies,” Muth Chantha added.
Last week at Ouk Phalla’s funeral in Phnom Penh’s Wat Botumwadi temple, Deputy Funcinpec Party President You Hockry also shared his memories of the princess.
“She was kind, friendly, and a generous person to underprivileged people,” he said. “In addition, it was in her nature to love art, because she was also an artist.”
“The loss is regrettable and will have an impact on Samdech Krom Preah [Norodom Ranariddh] because the princess was wholly supportive of him, following Samdech Krom Preah everywhere he went,” he added.
Astrid Norén-Nilsson, a political scientist at Lund University who authored the 2016 book “Cambodia’s Second Kingdom,” said Princess Ouk Phalla would be remembered for her intense commitment to supporting her husband’s endeavors.
“A good comparison to make would be with the Duke of Windsor and Mrs. [Wallis] Simpson. The heart has its reasons and this is how Ouk Phalla will be remembered by the royal family,” Ms. Norén-Nilsson said.
“She will primarily be remembered for being a good companion to Ranariddh in a sentimental way, giving him emotional support. For that reason, she was liked by the King Father and Queen Mother,” she added.
“In that spirit, when she passed away … she appeared as a shield who bore what could have been Ranariddh’s fate.”