- The Nine Lives of Norodom Sihanouk
An old saying has it that it is not the cards you’re dealt that matter, but how you play them. This engaging documentary focuses on a man who arguably played a consistently bad hand with great skill. If the test of politics is survival, Norodom Sihanouk must be counted as a master. While neither praising nor condemning the man who dominated Cambodia for more than half a century, this film reveals a man who somehow always managed to survive
When appointed King of Cambodia by the French in 1941, he was meant to play the part of a helpless puppet, content to live in luxury while France exploited his nation. When his European masters became bogged down in their war against the [End Page 75] insurgent Vietnamese, led by Ho Chi Minh, Sihanouk cleverly forced the overstretched French to grant Cambodia its independence in 1953. In an unexpected move, he then abdicated the throne and made himself Prime Minister. Fiercely proclaiming his nation’s neutrality, Sihanouk played all sides of the Cold War and coaxed aid from the Soviet Union, the United States, and the Peoples’ Republic of China. With these funds, he began to modernize Cambodia by improving education and building highways.
As the American war against Vietnam intensified, so too did the pressure on Sihanouk to choose sides. In a delicate and complex balancing act, the Cambodian government allowed Vietnamese troops to use part of its territory for the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which fed troops and supplies into South Vietnam. At the same time, he refused to join in the war against the Americans. When President Nixon tired of Cambodia’s independence, Sihanouk was deposed in a US-led coup d’état.
While many leaders would have accepted their fate and retired to a life of comfort in France, the wily Cambodian leader went to China. There he made a fateful decision, later seen as a tragic mistake, and allied with Pol Pot’s Maoist Khmer Rouge. Using Sihanouk as a figurehead, the Khmer Rouge was increasingly successful in its struggle against the US-backed government by giving Cambodians the illusion that it would restore Prince Sihanouk to power. The sad reality was that once in power, Pol Pot went on to commit genocide in the killing fields of the country, particularly targeting the educated citizens on whom Sihanouk had placed his hopes for modernization.
After years of being little more than a well-treated prisoner of the Khmer Rouge, Sihanouk saw his fortunes revive as the murderous Pol Pot was driven from power by Vietnam, which had tired of the brutality and threats from its neighbor. By 1991, Sihanouk was able to return home and once more took the title of King. While pointing out his undemocratic behavior and tragic alliance with the Khmer Rouge, The Nine Lives also asks some very relevant questions. The most important query that could be made at each stage of Sihanouk’s career is: What choice did he have? In a world where his options were severely limited by bigger and more powerful outside forces, could Sihanouk have realistically chosen better? This documentary, with its skillful use of archival footage and interviews with key players, recreates a fascinating period in Asian history. While particularly suitable for Asian history courses, this is a film that anyone hoping to understand the latter half of the twentieth century would do well to watch. [End Page 76]