Why did the Khmer Rouge not kill Sihanouk?

Why did the Khmer Rouge not kill Sihanouk? The fact that the Khmer Rouge were allies of the deposed King of Cambodia is no secret. That many Cambodian peasants thought that they were fighting for their king rather than the Khmer Rouge is also well documented.

We also know the Khmer Rouge were not exactly against killing people at will. This included people with glasses, foreign reporters and even Khmer Rouge loyalists. Why then did they not kill Sihanouk after he stepped down as head of state? There is no definitive answer to this, but we can look at the sources and climate of the time and get some idea into the reasoning.

To read about death of Malcolm Caldwell click here.

How did Sihanouk become head of state of Democratic Kampuchea?

After the CIA backed coup of 1970 King Sihanouk fled to his allies in Beijing. The Chinese were allies with not only Sihanouk, but also the Khmer Rouge. The PRC were allies of the Khmer Rouge for ideological purposes, the KR were officially Maoist, but also pragmatic reasons. The Vietnamese were now allied with the Soviet Union and the Chinese feared Vietnamese and thus Soviet influence on their southern border.

The Khmer Rouge had the strongest army by far and Sihanouk enjoyed the support of the Cambodian people. Very few Khmer were pro the regime of Lon Nol. Sihanouk was persuaded to ally with the Khmer Rouge and a government in exile known as the GRUNK was formed. Whilst the GRUNK was largely leftist it included a number of moderate socialists (who would later be killed) as well as Sihanouk as its President. When the Khmer Rouge/GRUNK took power in 1975 this meant that officially at least Sihanouk was head of the government.

Ironically the often ignored Khmer Bleu, again with suspected influence from the CIA had just “defected” to the government. In some ways they would have technically better bedfellows for Sihanouk. In reality though the west supported the  Khmer Republic, so Sihanouk had no other option than to unite with the Khmer Rouge.

Was Sihanouk a Socialist?

When Sihanouk ran the country as a one party state under the Sangkum “movement” it certainly espoused socialist values. Various terms were used such as Buddhist Socialism and even the paradox of “Royal Socialism”. And whilst left-wing and communist members were part of the government, socialist it was not.

To read more about Buddhist Socialism click here.

He was though too left for the USA and Lon Nol, hence his removal from power. In fairness Sihanouk did court many left-wing leaders and was undoubtedly friendly with people such as Chairman Mao. He even declared Kim Il-Sung his “only family”. A communist though, he was not.

North Korea and the Khmer Rouge – Why did the Khmer Rouge not kill Sihanouk

To read more about the friendship between Kim Il-Sung and Sihanouk click here.

Sihanouk as head of state of Democratic Kampuchea

Upon seizing power King Sihanouk became de-facto head of state as “leader of the GRUNK”. Yet, by the end of the regime he was to be the only survivor of the “liberal” elements of the GRUNK AKA non-Khmer Rouge members.

In fact in the early days the government the army still even referred to themselves as the “Royal Army”. As was documented in the Mayaguez incident. The last battle of the Vietnam War to involve US ground troops.

When Democratic Kampuchea was proclaimed Sihanouk was given the ceremonial position of Head of State, from where he went abroad trying to garner international recognition for the new regime.

On December 31st 1975 Sihanouk was to return to Cambodia from where he would preside of a meeting confirming the constitution of Democratic Kampuchea. This was to prove a fateful decision.

To read about the constitution of Democratic Kampuchea click here.

In February of 1976 Khieu Samphan took him on a tour of the Cambodian countryside. By all accounts Sihanouk was horrified by what he saw. At some point after this he resigned as head of state, which was rejected by the Standing Committee. Angkar eventually accepted his resignation in mid-April of 1976 backdating it to April 2nd. Samphan ironically would replace Sihanouk as head of state. He had previously served under various Sangkum governments.

What did the Khmer Rouge think about Sihanouk resigning?

There is a fabulous resource listing the minutes from a meeting of the standing committee in March of 1976 (before they accepted his resignation). At this meeting they openly discuss trying to persuade him to stay, or indeed if to execute him.

The following quote being extremely interesting

“3. MEASURES to be Taken: two directives

A. First directive: We don’t reject him. We ask him to remain in the same position. If he wishes to remain with us, he could remain for 5 months, l or 3 years, as long  he would like. If he cannot resist, it is not because of us, it is not our fault. In fact he won’t be able to remain with us. He and his family can see very well that they won’t have well-being  We don’t give him any choice, if he does not wish to remain, too bad for him”Minutes form meeting of the Government of Democratic Kampuchea

Essentially it was considered not just to kill him, but his whole family.

You can read the full minutes from the meeting here . They provide one of the rare and often undocumented policy meetings of the Communist Party of Kampuchea.

Why did the Khmer Rouge not kill Sihanouk?

Sadly there is simply no definitive answer to this, but is fair to note the following points.

  • Despite what the DK government was doing to its people it still saught international recognition. The Khmer Rouge government still had supporters in various countries.
  • China was the principal backer of the Democratic Kampuchean government. When Vietnam finally invaded the country, they still thought the Chinese would intervene on their side. It is likely that the Chinese simply did not allow the Khmer Rouge to kill Sihanouk.
  • The DK’s only other staunch ally was North Korea. Sihanouk and Kim Il-Sung were not just allies, but friends. Now that the Khmer Rouge were on a war footing with Vietnam, they did not need new enemies.
  • Sihanouk was simply more use alive than dead.

Sihanouk under house arrest

Until the liberation of Cambodia Sihanouk and his wife essentially remained under house arrest. Although with that being said, they were to enjoy a much better life than your average Cambodian citizen. For example he still lived in the Royal Palace, giving certain echoes of Pu Yi , the last emperor of China.

Before the DK was to fall Sihanouk was allowed to fly to Beijing, now under the rule of Deng Xiaoping. That he was allowed to fly backs up the previous point that it was most likely to have been the Chinese that had kept him alive.  From here he flew directly to the UN, where as the Cambodian representative he denounced both the Khmer Rouge and the newly installed Vietnamese backed government. Sihanouk tried unsuccessfully to seek asylum in both France and the USA, before settling in China.

Queen of the Khmer Rouge

Why did Sihanouk ally again with the Khmer Rouge?

Within 3 years Sihanouk would again ally with the Khmer Rouge, despite him claiming “they killed half my family”. Why did he do this and why did China support the Khmer Rouge.

China in 1982 was a very different place than it was under Maoism. Deng had begun to “open the door” and even KFC would enter the market 6 years later. This was certainly not about ideology. For China and indeed the west it was about curtailing Vietnamese influence and the Regan doctrine of containment. Having the Soviets and their allies involved in foreign conflicts, such as Afghanistan, Angola and Cuba benefited the west, even if it did bring about destruction in these countries. Angola and Cambodia for example still have huge issues with land mines planted during this era, largely by US supported “rebels”.

Again it boiled down to pragmatism. Whilst Sihanouk had FUNICIPEC and its army, the Army of Democratic Kampuchea were still by far the strongest fighting force.

They were also to “rebrand” themselves as the Party of Democratic Kampuchea, officially at least renouncing communism in favor of Democratic Socialism and of course extreme nationalism.

Sihanouk finally breaks with the Khmer Rouge

The end of the civil war in Cambodia could not, or would not have happened without the end of the cold war and the fall of the USSR. When it did everyone was prepared for peace, everyone except the Khmer Rouge.

This meant that despite supporting them for the last 12 years the west could now paint them as the enemy.

The Khmer Rouge were to continue in some way shape, or form until 1999 and final capture of Ta Mok. Sihanouk was to remain head of state until his death in 2004. Despite his links to the Khmer Rouge he remains loved as a patriot in Cambodia. This furthers the paradox that is the modern day Kingdom of Cambodia. Ruled by Khmer Rouge deserters and led by a family of active collaborators .

Of course there were eventually war crimes tribunals, but almost everyone had died by that point. Kind of convenient when you look at things as a whole. Dead people don’t speak.

Why did the Khmer Rouge not kill Sihanouk? Much like everything that happened during this era, the only constant is that we do not and probably will not ever truly know.