By Dr. Paul Baker, Catawba College Professor of Mathematics and Part-time Missionary
The e-mails and Facebook postings began arriving about 9:00 Sunday night - 10:00 Monday morning in Cambodia. Norodom Sihanouk, the Pere-Roi, the Father King, who led Cambodia for the past seventy-one years, had died.
The grief of the Cambodian orphans was palpable through their photos and words. One boy sent a photo of his despair. Another sent a photo of a candle. The messages were all short: "sad … my Hero is gone … rest in peace, my dear King" … "love you Grandpa" … "The father of independent now you gone, I'm so regret to lost you :'( " … "Khmer heart so hurt!!! ;(" … "R.I.P my HERO, who is the father of Independent ?" …
Of course, many messages were in Khmer which I didn't understand:
And there were pictures of the King – when he was young, when he was old and all ages in between.
My involvement with Cambodia began back in 1969 during the Vietnam War. I was assigned to be the U.S. Navy's Cambodian analyst at a time when the United States was reestablishing diplomatic relations with Cambodia. During my one-year tour of duty, I studied in detail the ruler of Cambodia and found him to be the most interesting person I have ever known.
He was a diplomat who could turn the diplomatic world on its head by the sheer force of his personality. Avoiding war, Sihanouk managed to negotiate independence from France in 1954. He tried to make Cambodia become the Switzerland of the East by choosing neutrality over alliance with either the East or the West. He claimed to speak only Khmer and French at the time, but at one press conference I witnessed, he took questions in English, Chinese, and German, answering in kind. Prince or King or Head of Cambodia or Prime Minister – I was never quite sure what to call him, for he occupied all those titles.
Norodom Sihanouk survived several assassination attempts. He was overthrown and exiled from 1970 until his recoronation in 1993. He was imprisoned by the Khmer Rouge, and several wives and children perished under the Khmer Rouge.
The non-diplomatic side of his life was equally rich and surprising. He wrote, produced and directed movies. He played the clarinet and saxophone. He wrote many love songs in Khmer and French and English. He wrote books.
Mostly, though, the Father King worked tirelessly for the people of Cambodia. He traveled to the villages and listened to the people. Through his reforms, girls and women were educated for the first time. His wife, the Mother Queen, heads up the Cambodian Red Cross. He and his wife sponsored many orphanages throughout the country.
During his 22-year exile, Norodom Sihanouk lived in China. There, he met the head of North Korea who built a palace for him. Sihanouk lived there for seven years, although he frequently returned to China and bridged the diplomatic barricades between those two countries.
During his exile, I managed to keep up with Sihanouk. I mailed him a manuscript of a trilogy of books I wrote about my tour of duty as Cambodian analyst that encompassed the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with Cambodia in July 1969, the death of Ho Chi Minh in September 1969, Sihanouk's overthrow in March 1970 and the Cambodian Border "Incursion" in May 1970. In addition to reading the manuscript, Norodom Sihanouk du Cambodge wrote a complimentary Foreword to my books. In 1996, my wife and I hosted the King's Personal Ambassador who had come to America to research the King's biography.
It was through the King's sponsorship of orphanages that I have become connected now with over 250 young Cambodians on Facebook. Ten years ago, I had the opportunity, through a letter of introduction by the King, to lead a mission trip into several Cambodian orphanages. Ten mission trips later, I have become Papa Paul to many orphans. Right now RTM (Resurrection Teaching Ministries) the small ministry I direct, supports an English and a computer teacher to teach in an orphanage. If the children can speak English and use a computer when they age out of the orphanage, they can get a much better paying job. Also, RTM is sponsoring the university education of six Cambodian orphans.
The death of Norodom Sihanouk has caused me to pause and remember the Cambodia of the past and to peer for a glimpse at the Cambodia of the future. The country has lost an accomplished and astute diplomat who was able to guide it carefully and gracefully over the political caldron that has been and continues to be Southeast Asia.
At this point I'm attempting to reassure the children that they have hope and a future. I encourage them that they haven't been abandoned. And I pray that their new king, Norodom Sihanouk's son, Norodom Sihamoni, will be able to lead them as carefully and rally their love as effectively as his father did in this still uncertain world.