Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Memories of Sihanouk, Cambodia’s legendary monarch, from the perspective of an ambassador's lady.

Exchanging gifts at farewell call on the King and Queen at Siem Reap.
News of the death of Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihanouk last Monday in China, after over two decades of battle with cancer and other diseases, triggered a rush of memories of our stay in that country and of the legendary monarch who had ruled it in stormy eras.

In January 1995, President Fidel Ramos appointed my husband, then retired from the Armed Forces for almost a year, as Ambassador to Cambodia and tasked him to re-open the Philippine Embassy after 25 years of its having been closed down, due to the conflict wrought by the genocidal Khmer Rouge and subsequent internal turmoil.

The last ambassador there was famed actor-politician Rogelio de la Rosa.  President Ramos wanted an envoy with a military background in the critical post-Khmer Rouge period and after the first UN-supervised parliamentary elections of 1993.

Ambassador Cunanan was posted in Phnom Penh for three and a half years and was rotating president of the ASEAN ambassadors, just as Cambodia was preparing to join the regional bloc.

In those three and a half years I would fly in for six-week periods and then return to Manila for another six weeks, as I was then running columns six days a week in Manila.  Thus, I had a lot of chances to view up close the charismatic sovereign whom I had heard so much about even before I met him.

By the time we got to Phnom Penh on February 14, 1995, much of what we learned about King Sihanouk was already legend. The world press dutifully chronicled his various ideological somersaultings, but we heard that after backing up the Khmer Rouge guerillas in later years he was himself imprisoned by them right in the palace, and he and his family survived the war years by planting vegetables in its grounds.

Very much a part of that legend too was Sihanouk's reputation as an urbane international playboy, until a beautiful, stately European-reared lady known to the outside world as "Monique," who could have passed as Ingrid Bergman's sister, came along and subdued his heart. Monique, who assumed the native name of Monineath, remained so devoted to the end. 

Sihanouk had been part of a long-gone historic era that had once counted with giants of the Non-Aligned Movement such as Marshal Tito of what was formerly Yugoslavia and President Sukarno of Indonesia. And like the last character of a prolonged darkened play, Sihanouk was the very last to exit from the NAM stage.

In fact, in the years 1995-1998, the King was more of a figure-head whom his subjects knew was around in the beautiful gilded palace by the river, to help glue together the tortuous country wracked by unbelievable traumas. But the masses drew comfort from his mere presence and loved and revered him.

Sihanouk was very much a francophone and an artist, an avid film-maker and composer whose movies and songs were tributes to his turbulent land and his beloved Monineath. The Court reflected his sophisticated European taste and manners.

Posing for posterity with the Cambodian Royals.
Late in 1995, President Ramos and First Lady Ming Ramos made a state visit to Phnom Penh at the last leg of a swing of Asean countries.  I was consulted by Sihanouk’s staff on the menu for the state dinner to be catered by the French restaurant, “L’Amboise,” of the Hotel Cambodiana, at that time the top hotel there.

The Cambodiana manager and I agreed on the dinner fare. Pretty soon, however, the Palace was calling. The King had checked out the menu I had selected and thought that it was too sparse---he wanted FVR’s party to have the best. He himself added one or two more items for the dinner fare and made sure the French wine was “impeccable,” as the French would say.

When the Ramos party landed in Phnom Penh, Foreign Secretary Domingo “Jun” Siazon whispered to me right away, “Alam ko na kung ano ang kakainin ko mamayang gabi sa palasyo.” He had read of our preparations for the state visit in my Manila column the day before; but of course, he didn’t know that King Sihanouk had personally supervised the menu.

It was a small hospitality gesture on the part of the King toward the Philippine President. But it also reflected his punctiliousness, which manifested itself in little things, e.g., photos the Palace would dutifully send to guests who called on him would each bear his neat signature in one corner that simply said "Norodom."

Palace dinners hosted by Sihanouk and Monineath were always scintillating; and even from the far end of the Palace dinner table one could hear him laughing at something---alternating from French to English in his conversations.

When we got to Cambodia it was very much still steeped in French tradition and ambience, having been part of what was once French Indochina, and I gladly soaked in it. During my visits to Phnom Penh, I would commission an elderly "Sihanoukiste" lady to come twice a week for conversations in French which she would lace with goings-on and high-society gossip around Phnom Penh. It was most interesting.

Thanks to Mme. Sanna's patience my French then (my UP elective language  which I tried to ameliorate later at Alliance Francaise in Manila) improved a bit and I would dare talk to some diplomats in their language. Sihanouk once overheard us at the dinner table and told everyone that “Madame ambassadrice speaks French very well.”  It was flattery at its most gracious. 

By the time we got to Cambodia in 1995 the King was already ailing with cancer, but it’s a tribute to Chinese expertise that he survived for over 20 years more.  Talk then was that the Chinese government, which he supported ardently, lent him a villa in Beijing where he sought medical attention from a cancer institute. In 2004 he stepped down from the monarchy, which was assumed by his son, now the reigning King Norodom Sihamoni, and he began to spend whole months in Beijing.

So happy was the royal family with the efficacy of the King’s long-running medical treatment that when my husband was himself stricken with cancer, Prince Norodom Ranarridh, Sihanouk’s son who heads Parliament, sent a message through our mutual friend, former Speaker Joe de Venecia, that my husband should perhaps seek treatment in that Beijing hospital too.

King Sihanouk’s last years as sovereign were not happy, as he saw more  turmoil envelop his country when one of the two “co-prime ministers” then, now PM Hun Sen, deposed Prince Ranarridh in a lightning coup in July 1997 and installed himself in one-man rule. That power-sharing Cambodian-style was a unique political experiment destined to fail.

That coup morning proved quite scary, however, as a mortar hit a big tree three houses away from our residence and cut it into two.  As we crouched beside the refrigerator that morning, my househelp Gina Duran, who had been with me in two coups staged in Camp Aguinaldo in August 1987 and December 1989, and I found time to laugh a bit about how coups seemed to follow us from there to Phnom Penh! 

Sihanouk receives Ph. donation of medicines for flood victims
 from Amb.Cunanan and embassy staff.

Two days later FVR sent a plane to evacuate all Pinoy dependents, led by the ambassador’s wife. I wanted to stay with my husband but Secretary Siazon ordered me out of there, and not to write anything provocative in the Manila media about the coup.

atanariddh went on exile to France and Asia but was able to return after two years, eventually taking his place in the parliamentary scheme of things. Peace has reigned in Cambodia under Hun Sen, and it’s now avidly pushing development even though, as in a few other countries in the region such as the Philippines, it continues to grapple with corruption.

But I suspect that the political turmoil of those post-coup years had wrought a lot of pain in the old king’s heart and he began to spend more time in his summer residence in Siem Reap, next door to the ancient temples of Angkor Wat in the north. In 2004 he chose to step down.

It was in Siem Reap where my husband and I and our two sons, Buddy and Conrad, bade farewell to the King and Queen in September 1998. We thanked them for their hospitality to us during our stay and exchanged gifts and fond wishes for the future.

Indeed I shall treasure my memories of our stint in Cambodia and of the legendary Sihanouk and his beautiful Monineath.   

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