The Modernity of Sihanouk’s Cambodia

Prince Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia pleads with foreign diplomats and dignitaries for the respect of Cambodia’s neutrality. Phnom Penh, 1956. Photo: Wilfred Burchett.

I discovered ‘modernity’ in 1965, in Cambodia. I was 10 years old.

Our family – my father, mother, brother, sister and me – had moved from Moscow to Phnom Penh in September 1965, so that ‘Dad’ (journalist Wilfred Burchett) could be closer to the ‘action’ in Vietnam. He was reporting the American war in Vietnam from the Ho Chi Minh-Viet Cong side.

1965 was an important year. In March, the US had extended its war of aggression by bombing North Vietnam in Operation Rolling Thunder and the first Marines landed in Da Nang. Thus the Vietnam war officially escalated from ‘special’ or ‘limited’ war to full scale U.S. military engagement.

Another ominous event took place around the time we arrived in Phnom Penh. In October 1965, President Sukarno of Indonesia – the father of Indonesia’s Independence, one of the founders of the Non-Aligned movement and an eloquent critic of Western imperialism – was overthrown in a military coup and replaced by the pro-American General Suharto. The coup was followed by the massacre of between 500,000 and 3 million suspected “communists” and the incarceration in concentration camps of another few million – communists, trade-unionists, left-wing intellectuals, women rights activists, members of the Chinese ethnic minority and suspected ‘leftists’ in general. The rivers of the ‘paradise island’ of Bali were clogged with bodies. People could no longer send their dead on their final journey because the woodcarvers needed for the elaborate funeral ceremonies had been massacred for belonging to craftsmen’s associations – a sure sign of communist “collectivism”. Commenting on the events, at the time, then Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt declared: “With 500,000 to one million communist sympathizers knocked off, I think it’s safe to say a reorientation has taken place.” Reorientation. Massacring “communist sympathizers” is mere “reorientation”. Please take note and memorize for future reference.

Of course, at the tender age of ten, I didn’t know all that. All I knew is that our family was leaving the great and mighty USSR for an exotic destination and close to the country where I was born, Vietnam, and its heroic people defending their country against US imperialist aggression.

At the time, for me, ‘modernity’ meant Sputniks, dogs in space, cosmonauts and the fantastic huge rockets displayed on Red Square during the November 7 parade to mark the October Revolution, guarantors and protectors of World Peace against Fascism and Imperialism. Everything Soviet was magnificent and heroic: the workers, peasants, soldiers, scientists, engineers, artists, writers – quite a few of them family friends, whom we’d visit in their datchas outside Moscow.

In Cambodia, or rather its capital Phnom Penh, I discovered a different kind of modernity, while struggling to switch from Russian to French: the modernity of Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s kingdom.

In May 1965, Sihanouk had broken diplomatic relations with the USA after years of trying to protect the neutrality of his country against constant American pressures to chose between the “free world” and “communism”. The coup in Indonesia proved him right. He gained another 4-5 years in which to keep his lovely country out of America’s wars, bloody coups and massacres.

We were very lucky to live this years in Cambodia. Harrison Salisbury, former managing editor of the New York Times described this period as “halcyon Cambodian days”.[1] Very few would disagree with him.

Sihanouk had very skillfully merged two versions of modernity: capitalist and socialist. He may have kicked out the obtrusive and overbearing Americans, but he kept the then still staunchly independent French.[2] In September 1966, General de Gaulle made his famous Phnom Penh speech at the brand new Phnom Penh Stadium designed by the great modernist Khmer architect Vann Mollyvann. De Gaulle eloquently expressed his firm support for Cambodia’s neutrality and advised the U.S. – citing France’s defeat in Indochina as a warning – to not escalate the war and leave Vietnam with honor and dignity.

My brother, sister and I attended the French Lycée Descartes. Opposite the Lycée was the Cercle Sportif, Phnom Penh’s social hub. Its grounds are now occupied by the U.S. Embassy. Phnom Penh was then, by general consent, the most pleasant city in Asia, with its elegant French villas, art deco public buildings, Van Mollyvann’s modernist architecture – marrying traditional Khmer architecture with that of Le Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer – the university and hospital built by the Soviets and the magnificent traditional architecture of the Royal Palace complex, the city’s many temples and the modern villas of the aristocracy and elite. A happy mix of the modern and the traditional, with broad leafy avenues and the Tonle Slap flowing majestically and providing much needed relief from the tropical heat. To me, Sihanouk’s Cambodia was and still is close to earthly paradise. The countryside was peaceful and relatively prosperous, schools, hospitals, roads, factories, irrigation systems, model farms and other essential infrastructure were being built with aid from France, China, the USSR and other socialist countries.

Sihanouk applied his version of Buddhist Socialism, adapted to Cambodia’s history and economic, geo-political, cultural and other realities. His Cambodia was an oasis of peace in a troubled region, destined to become even more troubled.

If you want to get a sense of what the Kingdom looked like in 1965, watch the documentary Cambodia 1965.[3] I watched it for the first time a few month ago and saw Cambodia exactly as I remember it. I only wish I could travel back in time and return to that golden age. I can state with total confidence that most Cambodians – and non-Cambodians – would agree that these were Cambodia’s best years.

Sihanouk’s Buddhist-Socialist kingdom offered an excellent model of development for a Third World country, where two systems were competing not against each other but for the benefit of all. In fact, I believe that is a good model for the whole world to study, not only for a small developing country in South East Asia.

Sihanouk had his native critics and opponents. On the right were CIA-supported groups, like the Khmer Serei (Free Khmer) operating on the Thai border and the Khmer Krom, “anti-communist” members of  the Khmer minority in South Vietnam, operating from the Saigon side. Cambodia’s comprador class had gotten fat on US aid, got addicted to it and was displeased with Sihanouk’s turn to the ‘left’ and rejection of American aid and all the strings attached to it.

On the Left, were the Khmer Rouge, at the time a tiny group of left-wing intellectuals and students who would take to the jungles and mountains when Sihanouk shifted to the right, and join him in government when he shifted to the left.

Together – and successively – the two groups would destroy Cambodia and cause immeasurable and ever-lasting physical and psychological damage and suffering.

In the summer of 1969, we left Cambodia for Paris, where peace talks had started to end the war in Vietnam.

On 18 March 1970, Sihanouk was deposed in a CIA-backed coup by his close and trusted associate General Lon Nol and his old right-wing rival Prince Sirik Matak. A month later, US and South Vietnamese tanks and troops would cross into Cambodia and US B-52s would begin carpet bombing the peaceful and graceful Cambodian countryside.

A new kind of ‘modernity’ was imposed on Cambodia: the ‘modernity’ of US imperial aggression. America’s war against Vietnam was extended to Cambodia.

Cambodia was declared a Republic: ‘free’ and ‘democratic’, presided by General Lon Nol and his entourage of astrologers and fortune-tellers, predicting glorious victories for the new Republic and her Leader.

On 23 March 1970, Sihanouk issued an Appeal for a Khmer National United Front and armed resistance to overthrow the Lon Nol-Sirik Matak regime and formed a government in exile from his base in Beijing. He was supported by the majority of his people, many patriotic members of the Cambodian elite and intellectuals in exile and formed an alliance with the Khmer Rouge.

US carpet bombing of the countryside, villages and towns enraged Cambodia’s peasantry and they swelled the ranks of the pro-Sihanouk forces and the Khmer Rouge, supported by Vietnam and China. The Soviet Union and most of its European satellites refused to support Sihanouk’s government in exile and recognized the new regime in Phnom Penh.

Phnom Penh became like a medieval city under siege, surrounded by pro-Sihanouk and Khmer Rouge forces, which controlled most of the countryside.

After a five-year civil war, on 17 April 1975, Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge. And Cambodia’s genocidal nightmare began. Sihanouk’s modernity had been crushed by a CIA-backed coup, followed by a US military invasion which devastated much of the countryside.

What the United States and its allies did to the countryside, the Khmer Rouge did to Phnom Penh: they emptied the city and drove its population into Pol Pot’s Killing Fields. Khmer Rouge barbarism was and is beyond anything previously known to humanity, surpassing even the Nazis and their extermination camps. For what the Nazis had done to particular groups of people, the Khmer Rouge did to an entire country and people, their own country and their own people.

I returned to Phnom Penh in December 2012 for a school reunion of sorts.

King Sihanouk had recently died and the Khmer nation was in mourning. The Royal Palace was closed, only the Silver Pagoda in the Royal Palace complex was opened to visitors. So I went in. And discovered beautiful frescoes decaying on the inner side of the wall surrounding the pagoda. They were painted at the turn of the 20th century in the traditional Thai-Khmer style and depict scenes from the Ramayana. They are both beautiful and gory. And they could be illustrations of the Khmer Rouge Killing Fields, with scenes of torture, dismemberment, decapitations and various horrors the gods inflict upon themselves while squabbling and fighting, or upon mortals, as punishment or ‘collateral damage’.

And I thought that every nation and race probably carries within itself the seeds of its own ‘killing fields’. And so does every ‘modernity’, be it that of Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s USSR, Mao’s China, Suharto’s Indonesia or Washington’s Imperium.

Prince Sihanouk, in his great wisdom, tried to navigate a course between modernity – as expressed by the Enlightenment – and Cambodia’s Buddhist humanistic and socialist tradition. He did it successfully. But evil forces conspired to bring him down and ensure that his model of development did not succeed and was smashed and desecrated.

For it would have endangered that other model of modernity that is still being brutally imposed with invasions, bombs and other forms of terror and coercion upon a reluctant world: global capitalism and its capo di tutti capi, US Imperialism.

Prince – later King – Norodom Sihanouk was a true Renaissance man. He was a skilled politician and diplomat, a reformer and a visionary, a film-maker and writer, a musician and composer, a gourmet cook, a sportsman and gentleman. He sent this message to me in March 2007:

Message from His Majesty the King Father Samdech Preah Upayuvarech NORODOM SIHANOUK of Cambodia

I send my cordial and affectionate regards to Mr. George Burchett.

I pay a sincere and heartfelt homage with my deepest affection, gratitude and admiration to the memory of the very respected Mr. Wilfred Burchett, a Great Man, Defender of the Justice for everyone, of the Independence for each country, of freedom and the rights of each people in particular the Khmer people, of my great and true friend, my Defender, my talented Collaborator, who had helped me so much in the drafting of my speeches, books (My War with the CIA in particular[4]), my press releases. He was always my supporter, in my patriotic activities and life at the service of my people. He enjoyed a tremendous popularity and prestige at the international level which he completely deserved and I shall never forget him.

Peking, 16 March 2007

Norodom Sihanouk

When I received this message, 11 years ago, I was living in Sydney, Australia. I was still stuck in the post-modernist matrix, where all things are treated with various degrees of irony according to their gender, identity etc. coefficient. King Sihanouk was then regarded mostly as a quaint relic of the past, the operetta king of an operetta kingdom. Cambodia was being ‘rehabilitated’ as a deep trauma patient mostly by the very countries and players who had helped unleash untold horrors upon it. That is the truly great irony of the matter, then and now.

I believe that one of the rare moments of honesty in recent US politics was Colin Powell’s warning to George W Bush, before the latter proceeded to invade – and destroy – Iraq: “You break it, you own it.” I believe that is the formula the US applies everywhere: break it, own it. You break Iraq, you own Iraq. Break Afghanistan, own Afghanistan. Etc. Then there’s the option of rebuilding and raking in the profits. Then you can break some more, and rake in more billions. War is a racket, as Marine General Smedley D. Butler famously wrote.[5] And none is better at it today than modern day America.

Cambodia was broken, its fragile modernity smashed by modern realpolitiks and warfare. Then its peasants, enraged by the ‘modernity’ unleashed upon them from the sky by B-52s, took revenge upon the urban population and finished the job, armed with clubs and hoes and other primitive weapons, prompted on by their demented neo-Maoist Khmer Rouge cadres.

So what are we left with today? What model of ‘modernity’ – if any – are we to follow?

I don’t claim any exceptional wisdom, but I have lived, studied and worked under capitalism and socialism, in the East and in the West, in Europe, Asia and the great land Down Under, Australia. And I can say with some degree of confidence based on experience, observation, study and practice that Sihanouk’s Cambodia was perhaps the ideal model. And Norodom Sihanouk, as Prince, King, Resistance Leader, was no doubt the greatest leader of his own people, still revered and respected. He was also one of the great positive modernizers of the 20th Century. His modernity was not based on capitalist profit and efficiency or collectivist utopias, but on a moderate vision, respectful of his own country and people, its history, culture, religion,  and of all other countries and peoples. It is a model of harmony and moderation, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

The alternative, to quote from General de Gaulle’s Phnom Penh speech, is “massacres and ruins” and apart from a demented few, who desires or whishes for that?

Norodom Sihanouk’s modernity was based on peaceful and harmonious development, balancing East and West, socialism and capitalism, tradition and modernity, Buddhism and the Enlightenment, it was elegant, progressive and benefited that nation and the people. Even his flaws – and they were many, no doubt – injected an element of humanity into his model, which he didn’t claim as a universal model. How refreshing!

“Break it, own it,” is destructive and vulgar. It leads to more wars, environmental devastation, cultural vandalism and a long and well-documented catalogue of untold horrors.

It must be rejected in favor of Sihanouk’s modernity, until someone comes up with a better model.

For now, Norodom Sihanouk’s Buddhist Socialism will do for me and my happy memories of Cambodia are confirmed by what I see documented on film, photos or Wilfred Burchett’s and others’ writings: a heaven of peace in a region torn by war, massacres, savage exploitation and the many other evils that stem from neo-colonialism and imperialism.

As General de Gaulle said at the end of his speech: Vive le Cambodge!

And I add: Vive le Cambodge of Norodom Sihanouk!


[1] Harrison E. Salisbury, Introduction to At The Barricades, the autobiography of Wilfred Burchett, Times Books, New York, 1981

[2] In June 1966, de Gaulle withdrew France from NATO.

[3] Cambodia 1965,

[4] My War With The CIA, Norodom Sihanouk and Wilfred Burchett, Pantheon, New York, 1972


George Burchett is an artist who lives in |Ha Noi.

George Burchett is an artist who lives in Hanoi.