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Historians Look at Former King’s ‘Mixed’ Legacy

Thousands of mourners gather at the gates of the Royal Palace minutes after the coffin of former king Norodom Sihanouk arrived in Phnom Penh October 17, 2012. Tens of thousands poured into Cambodia's capital to witness the procession on Wednesday.

Former king Norodom Sihanouk's most lasting legacy was the winning of independence for his country from colonial France in 1953.

WASHINGTON DC - Former king Norodom Sihanouk, who died in China on Monday, came to the throne at the age of 19. But he grew to become the most prominent national figure during decades of Cambodia’s turbulent politics.

Those who have closely watched his politics over the years say that the former king’s greatest legacy can be found in the early years of his rule and his continued role as a symbol of unity during troubled times. But they also point to some of his darker legacies, including his support for the Khmer Rouge at a critical turning point in Cambodian history.

Julio Jeldres, Sihanouk’s official biographer, told VOA the former king built modern Cambodia from what had been a feudal monarchy. But his most lasting legacy was the winning of independence for his country from colonial France in 1953.

“He is the symbol of Cambodian independence and unity,” Jeldres told VOA. “He managed to keep this country at peace, while the Vietnam War was raging next door.”

Sihanouk, who was nearly 90, died in Beijing early Monday after a heart attack. He had gradually retreated from public life after passing the throne to his son, Norodom Sihamoni, in 2004.

David Chandler, an author and prominent scholar of modern Cambodian history, said Sihanouk dominated, “or you might even say smothered,” Cambodia’s early political scene.

“He felt himself in some ways to be the embodiment of the country…that the spirit of Cambodia presided in him as king,” Chandler told VOA. “He felt he had a special endowment to represent the Cambodian people. He combined this with a deep and very sincere love of ordinary Cambodians, which is a characteristic you won’t find too frequently among the Cambodian rulers.”

Sihanouk will be ill remembered by some for his support of the Khmer Rouge insurgency, between his ouster by coup in 1970 and the regime’s overthrow of the Lon Nol government, in 1975.

“But he didn’t know what they were going to do when they came to power,” Chandler said. “And when they did come to power, they locked him up for three years, and their cruel and inhumane policies I think shocked him and upset him.”