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By Julio A. Jeldres*

I was recently asked to comment on a paper entitled “The Scope of the Authority of the Extraordinary Chambers to obtain the testimony of High-Level Cambodian Government Officials and King Father Sihanouk” by Ms. Anne Heindel, Legal Advisor of DCCAM.[1]

The paper is a legal commentary on a legal document. As I am not a jurist I cannot comment on its argument, but as a history researcher, I would like to offer, with due diffidence, the following comments:

1) It should be pointed out, at the outset, that the whole premise about the desirability and feasibility of the ECCC obtaining the testimony of His Majesty the King Father in Ms Heindel’s paper is based on articles published in the local Cambodian press and, more in particular, on the request of the Nuon Chea defence team who are seeking an opportunity to question the King Father, and have said that:

It’s hard to imagine a more uniquely situated individual to shed light on the events of Democratic Kampuchea.” They have highlighted the retired King’s brief role as head of state of the DK regime, his presence in Cambodia during much of the Khmer Rouge period, and the information he may have been privy to due to his “unparalleled access to its senior leaders and hierarchy.” Moreover, “Sihanouk is singularly capable of providing information relevant to the [prosecutors] allegations relating to the DK authority structure’.”

2) Having had the opportunity recently to study the Nuon Chea Defence Team (NCDT) submission to the ECCC, I fear that the NCDT have not done their primary research before asking the ECCC to call for the testimony of the King Father and other government officials.[2]

This is most regrettable particularly as so much money is being spent on the workings of the ECCC, with some of that money surely a proper, accurate research could have been undertaken, before launching their application with the tribunal. But, in fact, their research is based on the work by Western scholars and journalists and on His Majesty’s book “War and Hope; The Case for Cambodia”, which they claim was published in 1978, when in fact was published in 1979 (for the French edition) and in 1980 (for the English translation) after His Majesty was freed from the Khmer Rouge.[3]

3) I notice, with particular regret that the NCDT made no attempt to consult His Majesty’s book dealing with the period 1976-79 when he was a prisoner of the Angkar (“Prisonnier des Khmers Rouges”), published by Hachette in France in 1986, in which His Majesty described his daily life at the Khemarin Palace and his infrequent contacts with Khieu Samphan, who was the only “leader” authorized by the Khmer Rouge leadership to have contact with the King Father.

While I can well understand that the principal preoccupation of the NCDT is to find exculpatory evidence for their client, a little more diligence would have brought to their attention the following facts:

A) Norodom Sihanouk was Head of State of the Royal Government of National Union of Cambodia (GRUNC) which was established in exile in Peking on 5 May 1970.  Assessments of Sihanouk’s position since he assumed his role as President of the National United Front of Kampuchea (FUNK) and of GRUNC have tended to confuse his titular role with a policy-making role in these organizations. This was not the case. The Politburo of the FUNK, whose members were Sihanouk-loyalists, left-leaning intellectuals and a few communists living in exile in Peking, was responsible for policy making while the King Father was responsible for the diplomatic activities of FUNK and GRUNC as a man of international standing.

B) After the fall of Phnom Penh on 17 April 1975, His Majesty remained in Peking, where the late Queen Mother Kossamak Sisowath was seriously ill. The Queen passed away on 27 April 1975[4] and her funeral was held in Peking in the days that followed. Here it should be pointed out that after 17 April 1975, all policy making decisions were taken away from the Politburo of the FUNK and made by the in-country Khmer Rouge Politburo.

The King Father remained in mourning in Peking until 19 May 1975[5], when he accepted an invitation from President Kim Il Sung of North Korea to visit that country.  During the time he was in North Korea the King Father received messages from the Khmer Rouge leadership, through the late nominal Prime Minister of GRUNC, Samdech Penn Nouth, which suggested that the King Father could not return yet to Cambodia because there were problems with the telecommunications and the landing strip at Pochentong airport.[6]

During this time, a message from Khieu Samphan to the King Father also informed him that following a meeting on 25 July 1975 of the Council of Ministers in Cambodia, it had been decided to reshuffle the GRUNC with the addition of two Deputy Prime Ministers: Ieng Sary became Second Deputy Prime Minister in Charge of Foreign Affairs and Son Sen became Third Deputy Prime Minister in Charge of National Defence. Interestingly, the said message also confirmed that the GRUNC’s Foreign Minister, Sarin Chhak, remained in his post, thus Cambodia became one of the few countries in the world to have two Foreign Ministers.[7]

On 15 August 1975, a delegation of FUNK-GRUNC from Cambodia, led by Khieu Samphan and Ieng Sary arrived in Peking for an official visit to China[8].

While in Peking, Khieu Samphan and Ieng Sary visited Zhou Enlai at his hospital. The Chinese leader told them:

“Norodom Sihanouk must be protected. He is the Head of State. He must remain your common rallying point. You must unite, bring together all those you can, to build up a neutral, independent Cambodia.” [9]

The Chinese leader then proceeded to warn his Cambodian visitors about their future Socialist policies for Cambodia in the following terms:

“Socialism is not an easy road to walk. China is now walking along that road, and it is a very long road, with many obstacles” [10]

On 19 August 1975[11], the FUNK-GRUNC delegation led, this time, by Samdech Penn Nouth and composed of Khieu Samphan and Madame Ieng Sary (Ieng Sary, Sarin Chhak and other GRUNC officials having left from Peking to attend a meeting of Non-aligned countries in South America), travelled to North Korea for a state visit, during this visit to North Korea, Khieu Samphan extended an invitation to the King Father to pay a visit to Cambodia. The King Father returned to Peking from North Korea on 23 August 1975.[12]

The conditions posed by the Khmer Rouge for the return of Sihanouk to Cambodia were that Sihanouk and Samdech Penn Nouth could only be accompanied by their respective spouses.[13] He was not allowed to take any member of his personal secretariat and secretarial staff would be provided to him in Phnom Penh by the Khmer Rouge leadership. Members of the Royal Family and of the Cabinet of the Head of State could return to Cambodia later on and upon their return they would be lodged not in the capital but in the provinces, just as the members of the Royal Family who had remained in Cambodia have been asked to do, in order to familiarize themselves with the new living conditions of the country. Prince Sisowath Monireth, maternal uncle of the King Father, was said to be living in the region of Kompong Cham. One person who was granted permission to accompany Sihanouk on his September 1975 trip to Cambodia was the former Director of Royal Protocol and then GRUNC Ambassador to China, Ker Meas. But when the former King returned to Cambodia on 31 December 1975, he had been taken away never to be seen alive again.[14]

Prime Minister Zhou Enlai, at the time seriously ill with cancer, received the FUNK-GRUNC delegation on 26 August 1975 at his hospital and he pointed out that any division between Sihanoukists and Khmer Rouges would be extremely dangerous for Cambodia, as such division would open the door to interference in the internal affairs of the country by foreigners.[15] The ailing Chinese Premier insisted “that unity and peace would preserve the country together”. Zhou Enlai further added:

“It is pure and very dangerous utopia to try to reach fundamental Communism in just one step. It is necessary to advance, with a lot of prudence, towards such supreme goal. Firstly, it is necessary to try to achieve Socialism and that is already a very difficult enterprise. In any case, when one wishes to be a good Communist, the priority must be the well-being of the People. If one makes the People unhappy, one must conclude that one has failed in the process of an honourable Communisation of his country”.[16]

On 27 August 1975[17], Chairman Mao Zedong received the King Father and the FUNK-GRUNC delegation. On that opportunity Chairman Mao addressed the King Father in the following terms:

“Prince Sihanouk, the Kampuchean people loves you very much and owes you a lot. Please remain as their Head of State. I know well. My dear Prince, that there is a misunderstanding between you and your Cambodian Communist comrades, but do not forget that the grounds of understanding between you and them are more numerous than those that cause your misunderstanding”. Please, remain always together”.[18]

The King Father then proceeded to visit re-unified Vietnam, accompanied by Khieu Samphan and Madame Ieng Sary, for the celebration of their first National Day, on 2nd September 1975.

While in Hanoi, Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Van Dong suggested to Norodom Sihanouk that the “brothers and comrades in arms” from North Vietnam, South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia should have a joint dinner together[19]. In a clear indication of what the Khmer Rouge had in mind for their so-called “Head of State”, Khieu Samphan intervened and said to Pham Van Dong:

“We, Kampucheans accept a bipartite dinner between you, North Vietnamese, the host country, and our delegation”.[20]

Upon their return to the State Guest House, where the FUNC-GRUNC delegation was lodged, Khieu Samphan told Sihanouk that

“We must never fall in the trap prepared by these Viets who wish to dominate and swallow up our Kampuchea by incorporating it in their Indochinese Federation. We must remain very vigilant. This projected quadripartite dinner was a dangerous trap! We must not fall into it”.[21]

The (first) exile in Peking of the King Father was ceremoniously farewelled by a banquet presided by Vice-Premier Deng Xiaoping, who had assumed governmental duties replacing the very ill Zhou Enlai, on 6 September 1975. At the banquet Deng reiterated Chinese support for Sihanouk describing him as an “outstanding patriot of Cambodia” and as an “old and close friend of the Chinese people”.[22]

The King Father returned to Cambodia from 9 to 28 September 1975.

C) During that period he resided at the Khemarin Palace but had no contact at all with the Cambodian people.  The day after his arrival from Peking, Sihanouk presided over a Council of Ministers meeting but was reportedly not allowed to speak. He and his small retinue were confined to the Royal Palace during their stay and were only allowed outside on accompanied visits. His principal “liaison officer” for the Khmer Rouge was Khieu Samphan, who took him on a boat trip on the Mekong River.

The King Father then proceeded to China for the National Day and then to New York for the United Nations General Assembly. He spoke at the UNGA on 6 October 1975, and then proceeded to Paris, where he met President Giscard D’Estaing on 9 October 1975, according to French officials the meeting was “strictly for old times’ sake and nothing substantive was expected to result from it”.[23] He then travelled via Peking to Pyong Yang (North Korea) where he attended the 30th Anniversary of the Korean Workers Party, as the personal guest of President Kim Il Sung.

Upon his return from North Korea to Peking, around mid-October 1975 Sihanouk undertook a long trip of Arab, African and European countries which had recognized GRUNC from 1970 to 1975. Just prior to the trip of the GRUNC Head of State to these countries, Ieng Sary, as newly appointed Deputy Prime Minister in Charge of Foreign Affairs ordered all the Cambodian (GRUNC) Ambassadors back to Phnom Penh. Ambassador Chea San, who was accredited to Romania, protested arguing that it would be incorrect not only towards Sihanouk, but also towards President Nicolae Ceaucescu of Romania to withdraw the Ambassador of GRUNC from Bucharest, the Romanian capital, on the eve of the arrival of the Cambodian Head of State. Ieng Sary rejected the protest of Ambassador Chea San, asserting that that the “internal affairs of the new Kampuchea were more important than the visit of Sihanouk to friendly countries”. Finally, thanks to the intervention of GRUNC Prime Minister, Samdech Penn Nouth with Ieng Sary, the Cambodian (GRUNC) Ambassadors posted to the countries which Sihanouk was to visit were authorised to remain in those countries until the completion of the state visits.[24] I should add here that most of the GRUNC Ambassadors, with the exception of Ambassadors Chem Snguon and Hor Namhong, were executed by the Khmer Rouge once they returned to Cambodia in late December 1975.

Just before leaving Peking, on 30 December 1975, Chinese Acting Primer Minister, Deng Xiaoping hosted a farewell banquet for the King Father. During a conversation prior to the banquet, the Chinese leader informed Sihanouk that “his government would soon establish diplomatic relations with Thailand”. Sihanouk felt completely disconcerted as the Khmer Rouge had “not thought it worthwhile to inform me of their forthcoming ‘wedding’ with Bangkok, leaving to China the job”.[25]

C) During January 1976, Sihanouk was allowed to perform some of his diplomatic duties as “Head of State”. He received the Ambassadors of Sweden and Zambia in Peking who presented to him their credentials as non-resident Ambassadors to Cambodia. He was also allowed to receive visits from the Ambassadors of Albania, China, North Korea, Vietnam and Yugoslavia; and the Charge d’affaires of Cuba in Phnom Penh. He was also allowed to see diplomats from Afghanistan, Palestine, Romania, Egypt, Mauritania, Senegal and Tunisia, who had been invited by the Khmer Rouge leadership to visit Cambodia. One of his last visitors was the Chinese Minister for Foreign Trade, Li Kiang.[26]

Days after his return to Cambodia, on 5 January 1976, Cambodia announced to the world that a new Constitution had been promulgated and that the country was now to be known as “Democratic Kampuchea”; that a new flag (Red with an Angkor symbol in yellow) and a new National Anthem (“April 17, the Great Victory”) were also announced. Sihanouk whom, as “Head of State”, should have been consulted was not and a so-called “National Congress” had been held while he was on his diplomatic mission abroad.[27]

In February 1976, the “Angkar” decided that Sihanouk should do a “tour of the Great Lake”. This meant a journey by train from Phnom Penh to Battambang, then by car to Sisophon and Siemreap-Angkor, returning from Siemreap to Phnom Penh with a stop at Kompong Thom.[28]

Soon afterwards, the King Father heard a broadcast by Radio Democratic Kampuchea announcing that the new Democratic Kampuchean Ambassador to Laos had presented his credentials to Prince Souphanouvong, President of the Lao Democratic People’s Republic. Sihanouk did not recall ever having signed credentials accrediting an Ambassador to Laos. He, therefore, asked Samdech Penn Nouth, whom was allowed to visit the King Father, whether he had attended the Council of Ministers formalizing the appointment of the new Ambassador to Laos only to be told by Samdech Penn Nouth that he had himself learn the news while listening to Radio Democratic Kampuchea!

Here, I feel I should present the testimony of Dr. Dhimiter Thimi Stamo, the former Albanian Ambassador to Democratic Kampuchea. Albania had been a strong supporter of the Sihanouk led GRUNC and in December 1975 had sent Dr Stamo to establish the Albanian Embassy in Phnom Penh:

“As soon as I arrived in Phnom Penh (on 2 December 1975), I informed the protocol that I had a letter of credence addressed to Samdech Norodom Sihanouk by the Albanian Head of State. I was told to wait until an appropriate moment. It was not until the March 1976 elections that I was given some idea that I would be presenting my credentials but by then there had been a change of Head of State and it was necessary to prepare new letters of credence which arrived from Tirana on 30 April 1976. I again informed the protocol and was told it was not necessary. When I insisted, I was told to wait. It was not until the 11 June 1976 that I was able to present my credentials to Khieu Samphan, accompanied by Ieng Sary, that is six months after my arrival in Phnom Penh!” [29]

The King Father requested permission to travel to China for a medical check up but was told that Dr. Thiounn Thoeunn was perfectly capable of taking care of his medical worries.[30]

The Deputy Chief of Mission of the Embassy of Romania in Peking, Mr. Lefter, who visited Cambodia in late January 1976, upon his return to Peking, told US diplomats that he had had a three hour private conversation with Sihanouk, he described the prince as being very sad and feeling that he had been dealt a double blow, first by the Lon Nol coup and second by the Khmer Rouge. According to the Romanian diplomat “Sihanouk had lost weight, was despondent and feared for his life”.[31]

An Egyptian diplomat in China, Ambassador Medhat Tawfik Ibrahim Tawfik, who knew Sihanouk since 1958 and was at the time the Deputy Chief of Mission of the Egyptian Embassy in China, visited Cambodia in early March 1976, commented to the US Liaison Office in Peking that Sihanouk “was a Head of State who had nothing to do with the day to day business of government.”[32]

Both diplomats felt that Samdech Sihanouk did not enjoy much power or influence and that he owed his life to the influence of China with the Khmer Rouge, and to the interest other foreign Heads of State showed in his well-being.[33] However, with the passing away of Prime Minister Zhou Enlai, who had strongly supported Sihanouk, the Khmer Rouge stopped treating the King Father with consideration. Chinese author, Han Suyin, has observed “

As long as Zhou Enlai was alive, Sihanouk was fairly treated by the Khmer Rouge”[34]

Norodom Sihanouk submitted his resignation in early March 1976[35]. Almost immediately he was placed under house arrest. He was only allowed to leave the Royal Palace when the Khmer Rouge organized for him a couple of visits to the countryside but all contact with the Cambodian people was forbidden, even with his own children, grand-children and other members of the Royal Family. He was not allowed to receive letters and his only means of communication with the outside world was his small transistor radio.

President Mao Zedong of China died in September 1976, the King Father was not allowed to visit the Chinese Embassy to sign the condolences book and therefore Sihanouk wrote a message and asked his Khmer Rouge jailers to forward it to Peking. But upon his return to Peking in January 1979, some of the King Father’s Chinese friends expressed being disappointed by the fact he had not shown any sympathy on the President’s death, it was then that Sihanouk realised that his message never reached the Chinese capital.[36]

In 1977, another of the King Father’s closest friends, President Tito of the then Yugoslavia, let it be known that he  was only willing to receive a visiting Khmer Rouge delegation led by Ieng Sary, after he was given assurances that his Ambassador in Phnom Penh would have access to Sihanouk.[37]

The last documented attempt by a foreign dignitary to check on the well-being of the King Father was made by the widow of the late Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, Madame Deng Yingchao, who was dispatched on a mission to Cambodia in early January 1978. She requested on several opportunities a meeting with Sihanouk but was denied the same and was only allowed to see Sihanouk accompanied by the Queen Mother driving pass Madame Deng Yingchao’s residence in Phnom Penh, thus confirming to the senior Chinese visitor that the King Father was still alive.[38]

During the whole period the King Father spent in Cambodia, he only met Pol Pot once, just prior to the King Father’s departure for China in January 1979. I have found no record or reference to the King Father ever meeting Nuon Chea, thus it is hard to understand the claim by the Nuon Chea Defence Team that the King Father had “unparalleled access to the senior Khmer Rouge leadership” and even more hard to imagine how could His Majesty provide any further information or light on the events of Democratic Kampuchea when he was a prisoner of the regime.


*Ambassador Julio A. Jeldres is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Asia Institute of Monash University, a former Senior Private Secretary to His Majesty the King Father and currently his Official Biographer.

September 30, 2009

[1] “The Scope of the Authority of the Extraordinary Chambers to Obtain the Testimony of High-Level Cambodian Government Officials and King Father Sihanouk”, Anne Heindel, Legal Advisor, Documentation Center of Cambodia, September 2009

[2] Seventh Request For Investigative Action, Nuon Chea Defence Team, 28 November 2008

[3] Norodom Sihanouk (translated by Mary Feeney) “War and Hope: The Case for Cambodia” Sidgwick & Jackson, London 1980

[4] See New York Times, April 28, 1975, page 29

[5] See New York Times, May 19, 1975, page 2

[6] Handwritten letter from Samdech Penn Nouth to HRH Princess Monique Sihanouk dated June 24, 1975. Copy from His Majesty’s Personal Archives in the author’s possession.

[7] Telegram from Khieu Samphan, Deputy Prime Minister of GRUNC and Commander in Chief of the People’s National Liberation Army of Kampuchea to Samdech Norodom Sihanouk, Head of State and President of FUNK, July 30, 1975 (submitted to NS on 5 August 1975). Copy from His Majesty’s Personal Archives in the author’s possession.

[8] USLO to State, Peking No. 1561, August 16, 1975, Record Group 59: General Records of the Department of State, NARA, College Park.

[9] See Han Suyin “Zhou Enlai and the making of modern China” Pimlico (Random House), London 1994, page 405

[10] Ibid

[11] New Zealand Embassy Peking to External Affairs Wellington, Telegram No.62 (Confidential), August 20, 1975.

[12] French Embassy Peking to Quay d’Orsay Paris, Telegram No. 1466-68 (Confidential), Peking August 25, 1975, Diplomatic Archives of France, Paris, Asie/Oceanie, Cambodge 1970-75

[13] Norodom Sihanouk, unpublished manuscript, “The Cup to the Dregs” Second Part, Chapter 1

[14] Unpublished manuscript “The Cup to the Dregs”, Second Part , Chapter 5

[15] French Embassy Peking to Quay d’Orsay Paris, Telegram No. 1477-81 (Secret) , Peking August 25, 1975, Diplomatic Archives of France, Paris, Asie/Oceanie Series, Cambodge 1970-75

[16] See “Text for History” by Norodom Sihanouk on his website, 30 June 2003 (My translation from French)

[17] Xinhua News Agency, Daily Bulletin in English, 28 August 1975

[18] “Text for History: op. cited.

[19] Unpublished manuscript “The Cup to the Dregs”, op cited, Second Part, Chapter 12

[20] Ibid, op cited

[21] Ibid. op. cited

[22] Speech by Deputy Premier Deng Xiaoping, 6 September 1975, copy in author’s possession.

[23] US Embassy in Paris to State Department, No. 26381 (Confidential), October 9, 1975, Record Group        59: General Records of the Department of State, NARA, College Park.

[24] Unpublished manuscript “The Cup to the Dregs”, op. cited, Second Part, Chapter 4

[25] Unpublished manuscript “The Cup to the Dregs”, Second Part , Chapter 2

[26] Unpublished manuscript “The Cup to the Dregs”, Second Part, Chapter 5

[27] Unpublished manuscript “The Cup to the Dregs”, Second Part, Chapter 6

[28] Ibid.

[29] See Dhimiter Thimi Stamo “Tre Anni con I Khmer Rosi” (Three Years with the Khmer Rouge), AFRICANA –Rivista di Studi Extraeuropei, Vol. VI 2000, page 22. My translation from Italian

[30] Unpublished manuscript “The Cup to the Dregs”, Second Part, Chapter 18

[31] USLO, Peking to State Department,  March 18, 1976, copy from Indochina Archive, Berkeley.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid, op cited

[34] Han Suyin “Zhou Enlai”, op. cited page 405

[35] Documents concerning the request of Prince Norodom Sihanouk for retirement. This booklet circulated in April 1976 by the Khmer Rouge leadership comprises the original handwritten request by Norodom Sihanouk to retire in French language, a translation in English, as well as a Statement of the Government of “Democratic Kampuchea”, dated 4 April 1976, accepting the request in English and French. It is interesting that in the handwritten letter of Norodom Sihanouk the month March had been changed to April.

[36] Unpublished manuscript “The Cup to the Dregs”, Part 2, Chapter 19

[37] Author’s personal discussion with HM the King Father, Peking November 1996

[38] Norodom Sihanouk “Prisonnier des Khmers Rouges”, Hachette, Paris, 1986, pages 249-50. This episode was confirmed to the author in 1988 in Peking by a Chinese diplomat who served in the Chinese Embassy in Cambodia.

** Thanks Ambassador Julio A. Jeldres for the permission to post this article.