- “A Personal Reflection on Norodom Sihanouk and Zhou Enlai: An Extraordinary Friendship on the Fringes of the Cold War”
I was sixteen years old when I first read about Norodom Sihanouk1 and Cambodia. Jacqueline Kennedy’s visit to Cambodia in November 1967 had been widely reported by the press in my homeland, Chile, where her assassinated husband was greatly admired. Through Jackie Kennedy’s visit to Cambodia, I became interested in Norodom Sihanouk’s fascinating life, totally unaware that, years later, our paths would cross and I would become his private secretary. My Cambodian friends often tell me that it was my destiny. In 1967, I wanted to know more about Cambodia. Since there was no information available, I wrote to the Cambodian mission at the United Nations. I found it unbelievable, but four months later I received a handwritten letter back from Sihanouk himself. That began our friendship, which was first conducted through correspondence.2
After Sihanouk was deposed in March 1970, I discovered that the local New China News Agency branch in Santiago, Chile, carried copies in Spanish of all of Sihanouk’s statements made in the Chinese capital a day earlier. It didn’t seem to make sense that a Communist regime would extend such courtesies to a former monarch. This led me to one aspect of Sihanouk’s political life that I found especially intriguing: his association with Chinese premier Zhou Enlai. This relationship seemed to be a very special one between the head of state of a Buddhist kingdom and the prime minister of [End Page 323] a Communist state. As a novice in international affairs, I knew little about how relationships operated between states, yet it still seemed strange to me that a ruler who claimed to be descended from the kings of Angkor had a unique relationship with the political leader of a country ideologically opposed to monarchical government.
I sought to gain a better understanding of the Sihanouk-Zhou friendship when I began researching my first degree in Melbourne, Australia. However, in those days there was little written about Cambodia’s relations with China, as attention was mainly focused on the ongoing conflict ravaging Vietnam.
During this period, I continued to correspond with Sihanouk as circumstances allowed. Then, in 1981, I met Sihanouk for the first time during a visit to North Korea, a trip he organized for his “young Chilean friend” when Sihanouk was the honored guest of President Kim Il-Sung. The trip came about after I had informed Sihanouk—in one of my letters to him—that I had won a ticket in a raffle for a trip to Hong Kong. Sihanouk said that Hong Kong was not far from North Korea and that he would ask the North Korean president’s permission to receive me at his own residence in Pyongyang. Little did I know that this trip was going to change my life; the following year I joined the private secretariat of Sihanouk. I was initially based in Bangkok but often traveled to Beijing, where Sihanouk had, once again, established his headquarters following Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia. In Beijing I was able once again to pursue the topic that interested me: the relationship between Sihanouk and Zhou Enlai. In this essay, I trace the relationship between the two leaders from their first meeting at the Ban-dung Asian-African Conference in April 1955 until the last time they met, in August 1975, just before Sihanouk returned to Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge regime and lived for three years under house arrest.
In Beijing, which again became my permanent base in 1988, I began mingling with a select group of Khmer speakers in the Chinese foreign ministry whose careers were directed toward managing China’s policies toward Cambodia and its immediate neighbors, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. In most cases, they served two or three postings at the Chinese embassy in Phnom Penh, then in Bangkok, Hanoi, or Vientiane, from where they followed those countries’ relations with Cambodia. Beginning as translators to the embassy or the ambassador, they rose in seniority up the diplomatic ladder and, in some cases, became ambassadors to Cambodia...