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NORODOM SIHANOUK (1922–)

Cambodia’s most important historical figure of the 20th century and an influential actor in Cambodia during the entire Indochina War. Born in Phnom Penh to Prince Norodom Suramarit and Princess Kossaman Nearirak, Sihanouk received his primary education at the École François Baudoin in Phnom Penh in the early 1930s before pursuing his secondary studies at the Lycée Chasseloup Laubat in Saigon, where he specialized in Greek and Latin rhetoric. His real passion during this time, however, was for modern sports – football (soccer), cycling, and horse-riding. In 1941, he acceded to the throne when the French Governor General Jean Decoux crowned him king in October of that year. During the Vichy regime, Decoux mobilized the Indochinese monarchies in order to hold on against the occupying Japanese and their Thai allies determined to take large swaths of western Indochina. Backed by the French, Sihanouk left the royal palace and began to move about the country and towards the “people” for the first time. Sihanouk supported Cambodia’s national independence in alliance with Son Ngoc Thanh after the Japanese coup de force of 9 March 1945 removed the French. Upon the defeat of the Japanese in August, Sihanouk then welcomed the French back. While he conceded some of his power by allowing the promulgation of a new constitution, he had Prince Norodom Monireth appointed as prime minister. This allowed him, between July and October 1947, to make a Buddhist religious retreat, marking the first time a reigning king had ever done so. During this time, he also pursued military studies in Saumur, France, at the École d’application de l’arme blindée et cavalerie.

Sihanouk returned to the political scene with the creation of the Associated States of Indochina in 1949, increasingly worried that the Democrat Party would eclipse him and the monarchy for good. Sihanouk exercised his power as president of the Council of Ministers between 2 and 31 May 1950 and again between 16 June 1952 and 23 January 1953. He launched his royal crusade for independence in 1952–1953, when he supported the removal of the Huy Kanthoul government, dominated by the rival Democrat Party, traveled to Thailand, France, and North America to plead his nationalist cause, and threatened to mobilize the Khmer against the French if they failed to decolonize on his terms. He simultaneously condemned the Democratic Republic of Vietnam’s (DRV) support of the Khmer Issarak and their combined military intervention in eastern Cambodia in early 1954. He successfully exploited local and international situations to force the French to grant full independence to Cambodia on 9 November 1953.

Because the amended constitution of 1954 pre-cluded the king from playing an active role in national politics, Sihanouk abdicated in favor of his father, Norodom Suramarit, in March 1955. However, he would return to the political scene and would go on to play one of the most important roles in Cambodian politics during the Vietnam War. He returned a final time to the Cambodian throne between 1993 and 2004. See also ASSOCIATED STATES OF INDOCHINA; BAO DAI; BAO DAI SOLUTION; PHETXARĀT RATTANAVONGSĀ; SĪSĀVANGVONG; SUPHĀNUVONG.