By Dylan Lal

Between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge regime undertook a bloody and vicious campaign of genocide against its own people in order to consolidate absolute power. During this time approximately 2.2 million Cambodian citizens were killed, and their bodies were dumped unceremoniously into mass graves, a number of sites collectively referred to as the Killing Fields. However, the Khmer Rouge government could not have come to power without the timely alliance with the Cambodian Prince-in-exile in 1970. Prince Norodom Sihanouk was the king of Cambodia from 1941 to 1955, and again from 1993 to 2004. Prior to his second ruling term, Sihanouk was the Prince, President and de facto ruler of Cambodia from 1955 to 1970; however, he was overthrown by a coup led by then Prime Minister Lon Nol and Prince Sirik Matak. Feeling betrayed and vengeful towards those who had done him wrong, Sihanouk fled to China to plot his next moves. Initially against the idea that he would someday return to power in Cambodia, the verdict of death in absentia of Sihanouk pushed him toward reclaiming his country. In doing so, Sihanouk was introduced to the Khmer Rouge, and so the Cambodian communists who were once a target for Sihanouk’s wrath ultimately became his allies.

Scholars and writers portray this relationship in different ways. The general consensus is that Sihanouk recognized the necessity of the relationship with the Khmer Rouge, and later was disgusted by their tactics, causing him to sever ties in 1976. Nevertheless, the question remained whether Sihanouk was a willing pawn or an unwilling prisoner to the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge under the ruthless dictator Pol Pot. In his book Pol Pot: History of a Nightmare, Philip Short presents the idea that Sihanouk was attempting to use the Khmer Rouge as a tool to further his own agenda. Milton Osborne argues a similar point in his books Phnom Penh: A Cultural History and Sihanouk: Prince of Light, Prince of Darkness, yet simultaneously states that Sihanouk was much more wary of getting into any sort of alliance with Pol Pot and his associates.

Short writes that while Sihanouk was a selfish individual with an egotistical desire to reobtain what he saw as his, he was also a proud man who had turned Cambodia into an independent state. When Short depicts Sihanouk’s return to Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge had captured Phnom Penh, he described him as “self-centred and self-pitying. He often seemed more outraged by Khmer Rouge table manners, or the decrepitude of buildings where he had once entertained state guests…than the wretchedness of his compatriots, labouring in the fields.”[1] Short sees Sihanouk as just as misguided as Pol Pot himself, nothing more than a dictator striving to regain his former power. Short argues that Sihanouk’s decision to ally with the Khmer Rouge was based on the idea of a two front war, with Sihanouk “free to lead the diplomatic battle for international recognition as he thought fit. Sâr [Pol Pot] had the same liberty to conduct policy at home.”[2] However, Short’s account makes it clear that this was not a partnership, nor even a friendly understanding. When comparing the two men, Short stated that “each had a distinct agenda. Sihanouk wanted vengeance. The Khmers Rouges needed his name. It was not even a marriage of convenience. They shared different beds with different dreams.”[3] This is indicative of the dichotomy Short presents: Sihanouk as the proud ruler of a nation he rebuilt, and Sihanouk as a man understanding he must make a proverbial deal with the Devil to regain that power. Osborne presented a similar representation of Sihanouk, yet made it a point that he was coerced into a pact with the Khmer Rouge.

In Osborne’s Phnom Penh, Osborne details that the absurdity of the alliance was not lost on Sihanouk. Osborne commented that “Sihanouk recognized the supreme irony of his joining forces with those who had so recently been his bitter enemies.”[4] Osborne argued that because of Sihanouk’s need for the Chinese government’s support, he would have to ally with the Communist Khmer Rouge. Therefore, Osborne defined the relationship as one coerced by external sources rather than by critical choice. In his book Sihanouk, Osborne writes that Sihanouk saw the majority of the Khmer Rouge as those “whom he had repeatedly castigated as traitors and enemies while he was still in power.”[5] This drastically diverges from Short’s assessment of Sihanouk as a willing participant in the alliance that would ultimately decimate Cambodia. Osborne chose to view Sihanouk in a relatively positive manner, simply as a man who wished to regain the nation that he had carefully rebuilt. In order to do so, he would have to ally with a group he had opposed, at the behest of his Chinese benefactors. While Short chose to portray the conflict as internal, Osborne chose to focus on international factors, describing the Chinese as the party that ultimately pushed Sihanouk into the alliance with the Khmer Rouge. Fundamentally, Short’s account of Sihanouk is one of vengeance and egotistical needs, but also driven by patriotism, in that Sihanouk wished to regain the country from those who had taken it from him. By Osborne’s account, Sihanouk is a man who simply wished to do right by his people, and regain the Cambodia that he had transformed into a successful independent country.

To provide context for Philip Short’s argument, a brief examination of Philip Short as a biographer is necessary. Short is a journalist by trade, employed by the BBC as a foreign correspondent for twenty-five years. His foray into biographical writing began with a piece on the Malawian president Hastings Banda. After finding critical success with that piece, Short set his sights on writing on dictators and controversial politicians, with biographies about Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, and François Mitterrand. Short has no experience as a historian, and does not feel that that hinders his writing in any way. In his own words, Short does not care for academic literature, as:

“Academics generally prefer dealing with themes—which can be connected to concepts and theories—rather than the messy way in which human beings—whether political leaders or anyone else—conduct their lives. There are honorable exceptions… but on the whole, academic biographies tend to be weak on the texture of life, the cussed (and inconveniently eccentric) humanity of their protagonists.”[6]

In addition, Short also maintains that a biography is “exactly what it says: graphos (a picture or story) of bios (a life),”[7] and believes that he does not need to offer in-depth analysis of the situation, but rather his job is simply to present the facts in an easy to read manner. Finally, by his own account:

“biography, at its best, has some of the same strengths as the novel, with the crucial difference that the biographer, unlike the novelist, is bound by historical fact and cannot (or at least should not) pretend to know the workings of his subject’s mind.”

The role of the historian, in my sense, is thus fundamentally different. The historian analyses, interprets and concludes, presenting an account in which he – not his subject – is the prime mover. It is his business to intrude, to argue a case, to present his vision of the events described (although I recognise that not all historians subscribe to this view). The biographer has a different task.[8]

In essence, Short argues that a biography should have no real argument, and that the text should be completely open to the reader’s interpretation. This thought process is evident in Pol Pot, as Short does not choose to present Sihanouk in one specific light. As mentioned above, there is a strong dichotomy in Sihanouk’s character according to Short. Although Short does not have a concrete argument, Sihanouk is shown as both patriotic and proud of what he had done for his country, then in the same chapter as a man looking out for his own interests. This assessment of Sihanouk is very ambiguous, and does not reveal much on Sihanouk’s true nature. This style does nothing but hinder Short’s effectiveness as a writer on the Cambodian situation as a whole, and sheds an unfavourable light on his assessment of Sihanouk. By not taking a stance, and by simply describing events, Short does not explicitly state the character of Sihanouk. Although Short’s book is a biography of an entirely different individual, there was little to no analysis of Sihanouk, thus painting him in a poor light. It is true that Short’s focus is on Pol Pot, but Sihanouk appears many times, and as a vital piece of Short’s narrative. It is a great disservice to not analyze a key figure in a biography, especially one of such importance to the context of the book. When taken at face value, the actions of Sihanouk can be described as destructive, as he was a man who allied with a group of militant communists to overthrow a local government. It is not until you look past the surface level actions, and examine why Sihanouk acted the way he did that his true nature emerges. Milton Osborne comes from a historical background, which strengthens his argument, as it includes a proper analysis of Sihanouk as a man.

Milton Osborne holds a PhD in Asian history from Cornell University, and was an Australian diplomat posted in Phnom Penh during the time of Sihanouk’s reign, prior to the coup by Lon Nol. Osborne has authored twelve books, in addition to the plethora of articles he has published, all revolving on the issues in Southeast Asia. Unlike Short, Osborne is a purely academic writer, focusing on writing thematically, rather than biographically. This distinction strengthens the arguments presented by Osborne in both Phnom Penh and Sihanouk. Although Sihanouk is indeed a biographical text, it offers analysis and interpretation. This contrasts with Short’s book, in that there is a sense of an argument being presented; the book is further legitimized with many of its points being corroborated by famed Cambodian historian David P. Chandler. In support of Osborne’s argument that Sihanouk was essentially forced into a relationship with the Khmer Rouge by the Chinese government, Chandler also argues that the Communist Chinese sought to “sustain [Sihanouk’s] fight so they could offer the Red Khmers a unique opportunity to communize Cambodia…which served the interests of the Chinese.”[9] In addition, in an interview given by Osborne, he states that “as a student of history I would also have to continue to give weight to the importance that should be attached to having Zhou Enlai, Mao Zedong and Pham Van Dong all urging him to act as he did. Susceptible as he always was to flattery, how could he not respond to the urgings of such a constellation of power and political talent?”[10] Even twenty years after his book was published, Osborne still maintains that the external pressures caused Sihanouk to align himself with the Khmer Rouge. To address Osborne’s idea that Sihanouk viewed the Khmer Rouge as traitors and enemies of the state, Chandler states that Sihanouk resorted to commanding “a united front government…whose Cambodian forces would consist largely of the Communists his army had been struggling to destroy only a month before.”[11] Partially due to the corroboration of Chandler’s works, Osborne appears to have the stronger and more convincing appraisal of Sihanouk as a man who wished to regain the nation he had built up, using any means necessary to do so.

As a final piece of evidence arguing in favour of Osborne’s assessment, in an interview with Playboy, Sihanouk explained what he was doing in the 1980’s to help the Cambodian people almost a decade after Pol Pot’s regime had fallen, and the Vietnamese had taken control of Cambodia. During the time this interview was given, Sihanouk was once again attempting to fight for Cambodian freedom. However, the battle was now against the Vietnamese, rather than those who overthrew the Prince. In 1987, Sihanouk was the head of a Cambodian government-in-exile, once again playing the role of figurehead, with his name giving legitimacy to the Cambodian cause. Drawn into a relationship with the Khmer Rouge for a second time, Sihanouk said that he believed that the Khmer Rouge would “spit [him] out like a cherry pit”[12] once they took control of Cambodia once again. In addition, Sihanouk reaffirmed the idea that the Khmer Rouge would continue to do so, as “there is a French saying, L’histoire est un éternel recommencement: History repeats itself eternally.”[13] In this manner, Sihanouk shows that he understood the implications of working with the Khmer Rouge, and realized that they would turn on him again. In spite of this, Sihanouk would once again receive military aid from the Khmer Rouge in his fight against the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia. This shows that Sihanouk truly wished to look out for his people, and was not simply out for vengeance, or serving self-interests. Sihanouk was a man dedicated to serving Cambodia and the Cambodians, and would go to great lengths to do so. This Sihanouk is the Sihanouk presented in Osborne’s writing.

No matter what factors led Norodom Sihanouk into the arms of the Khmer Rouge, the end result was disastrous for Cambodia. The relationship was symbiotic, as Sihanouk needed a fighting force to oppose Lon Nol’s government, and the Khmer Rouge needed a figurehead for the peasants to rally to. Both authors described the relationship between Sihanouk and the Khmer Rouge was described as reluctant, wherein Sihanouk was forced into an alliance he was hesitant about. Philip Short chose to portray the relationship between the two as more mutual, with both parties understanding that they needed each other. However, Short’s assessment was largely a superficial one, with a lack of a clear argument, as per his style. Conversely, Osborne chose to portray the relationship as one of trepidation on the part of Sihanouk, only to be pressured to join the Communist Khmer Rouge on the request of the Chinese government. This second portrayal of Sihanouk can be said to be the more accurate and valid, as Osborne wrote his argument in an academic fashion, and was corroborated by other historians, as well as indirectly by Sihanouk himself. Where Short simply tells Sihanouk’s story, and his dealings with the Khmer Rouge, Osborne takes the story a step further, by injecting his own analysis of Sihanouk as an individual, and is therefore able to make an assessment of the relationship between Norodom Sihanouk and the Khmer Rouge. When taken in a longer context, Sihanouk proved to be victorious in his reclamation of Cambodia, returning to the throne in a triumphant fashion and washing away his bloody ties to the Khmer Rouge.

Works Cited

Burgan, Michael. “Picture of a Life: Philip Short Explores the Biographer’s Craft.” Biographers

International Organization, July 11, 2014,

Chandler, David P. A History of Cambodia, 3rd ed. Boulder: Westview Press, 2000.

Chandler, David P. The Tragedy of Cambodian History: Politics, War and Revolution since 1945. Binghamton: Vail-Ballou Press, 1991.

Nhem, Boraden. The Khmer Rouge: Ideology, Militarism, and the Revolution that Consumed a Generation. Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2013.

Osborne, Milton E. New Mandala. By Susan Cunningham. February 3, 2013.

Osborne, Milton E. Phnom Penh: A Cultural History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Osborne, Milton E. Sihanouk: Prince of Light, Prince of Darkness. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994.

Short, Philip. “Author’s response.” History in Focus 10, (2006). Accessed November 22, 2015.

Short, Philip. Pol Pot: The History of a Nightmare. London: John Murray, 2004.

Sihanouk, Norodom. Playboy. By Debra Weiner. May 1, 1987.

Widyono, Benny. Dancing in Shadows: Sihanouk, the Khmer Rouge, and the United Nations in Cambodia. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2008.

[1] Philip Short, Pol Pot: The History of a Nightmare (London: John Murray, 2004), 333-334.

[2] Ibid., 202.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Milton E. Osborne, Phnom Penh: A Cultural History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 137.

[5] Milton E. Osborne, Sihanouk: Prince of Light, Prince of Darkness (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994), 223.

[6] Michael Burgan, “Picture of a Life: Philip Short Explores the Biographer’s Craft,” Biographers International Organization, July 11, 2014,

[7] Ibid.

[8] Philip Short, “Author’s response,” History in Focus 10 (2006), accessed November 22, 2015.

[9] David P. Chandler, The Tragedy of Cambodian History: Politics, War and Revolution since 1945 (Binghamton: Vail-Ballou Press, 1991), 200.

[10] Milton Osborne, interviewed by Susan Cunningham, New Mandala, February 3, 2013.

[11] David P. Chandler, A History of Cambodia, 3rd ed. (Boulder: Westview Press, 2000), 205.

[12] Norodom Sihanouk, interviewed by Debra Weiner, Playboy, May 1, 1987, posted online at

[13] Ibid.