By Richard S Ehrlich
Source: Asia Times
BANGKOK - The death of Cambodia's former
king Norodom Sihanouk in Beijing on Monday
symbolized how China had sheltered the monarch in
a mansion with personal medical, diplomatic and
financial assistance throughout much of his often
especially during the 1970s and 1980s, from its
supportive relationship with Sihanouk. But his
death at the age of 89 is not expected to slow
China's current rapidly expanding political and
economic influence in Cambodia.
Prime Minister Hun Sen, meanwhile, will no longer
have to engage in a convoluted relationship with
the often volatile, moody monarch, and may be able
to similarly increase his already strong
authoritarian power in the country.
Sen has ruled for 27 consecutive years, Asia's
longest-serving national leader, and could benefit
politically by regaling the late Sihanouk with
respect during the upcoming funeral and afterwards
while muting details of Sihanouk's treacherous
"China enjoyed a degree of
appreciation from many Cambodians through its long
association with Sihanouk," said Rich Garella, a
Philadelphia-based film producer and political
consultant and former managing editor of The
Cambodia Daily newspaper, in an email interview
hours after Sihanouk's death.
Sihanouk's influence diminished greatly over the
past 10 years, his passing will be a loss for the
opposition parties who counted on him as a
moderating influence on Hun Sen's repressive
policies," Garella said. "Hun Sen has already
replicated Sihanouk's implicit acknowledgment of
China's primacy in the region, and developed a
close relationship with Beijing."
promised US$1.2 billion in assistance in 2010 to
Cambodia after Phnom Penh agreed to deport 20
minority ethnic Uighur-Chinese "terrorist" asylum
seekers back to China.
"Hun Sen will now
appear to be free to negotiate with China
unilaterally, and will be seen to bear the entire
responsibility for that relationship," said
Garella. "He may now have to put on the occasional
show of mild resistance to Chinese influence.
Beijing can be expected to be his willing partner
in putting on that show."
Cambodia is "the
hard forward theater for China in Southeast Asia"
where Beijing can influence a vulnerable country
bordered by Vietnam, Laos and Thailand, and
utilize Cambodia's southern coast along the Gulf
of Thailand, said Nate Thayer, an award winning
journalist who has reported extensively on
Cambodia, including exclusive interviews with Pol
Pot just before the Khmer Rouge leader died in the
jungle in 1997.
"The amount of political
and economic influence and control they [China]
have achieved in recent years is phenomenal, and
has the US alarmed," Thayer, now based in
Washington, said in an email hours after
Sihanouk's death. "The amount of land, mineral,
and natural resource concessions they [China] have
taken is staggering."
environmental groups have drawn attention to the
influx of Chinese funds amid allegations of human
rights abuses against Cambodians who protest
against the rapid ecological degradation of their
country. Chinese companies have also been
implicated in a recent rash of state-supported
"Sihanouk, alone, could
speak his mind on the internal shenanigans in
Cambodia without retribution, but that role had
flickered dim in recent years," Thayer said.
Without Sihanouk, Cambodia "will become a refuse
for financial bad actors, international mafia, and
petty criminals," who can "operate without
interference", he said.
They may partner
with, or compete against, China's vast financial
interests in Cambodia's infrastructure and other
big ticket development projects, which have also
recently attracted investors from South Korea,
Thailand, Japan, America and others. Last year,
China reportedly invested more than $2 billion in
China's recent acquisitions and
construction deals did not rely on Sihanouk, and
the real value of their relationship peaked in the
late 1970s or early 1980s. Cambodia's reigning
King Sihamoni, Sihanouk's eldest son, who took the
throne in 2004, is not perceived to have the same
powerful influence or charisma that his father
"I don't think China loses
anything from Sihanouk's death," said
Bangkok-based Bradley Cox, who made two
investigative documentary films in Cambodia.
"China and Cambodia are basically in business
together. China gets influence and investment, and
Cambodia's elite get paid off."
'unofficial' check and balance to Hun Sen's power
was Sihanouk. Sihanouk was loved by the people, so
he could really throw a spanner into the works if
he chose to. So Hun Sen often sought out his
approval and tread lightly around him," Cox said.
"With Sihanouk gone, there is nobody to keep Hun
Sen in check."
Sihanouk was crowned in
Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital, by the Nazi-backed
Vichy French colonial regime in 1941. In his book
titled Sihanouk Reminisces, he described
how he "ordered" his "army to transport Chinese
and Soviet arms" from Cambodia's port to anti-US
Vietnamese guerrillas in "safe holds on the
Cambodia-South Vietnam border".
Washington supported a coup that toppled
then-Prince Sihanouk, who was head of state.
Sihanouk then supported anti-US Khmer Rouge
guerrillas and helped pave the way for Pol Pot's
1975-1979 "killing fields" regime, which killed an
estimated 1.7 million Cambodians. Sihanouk
supported the radical Maoist group again during
the 1980s in a loose alliance against Vietnam's
occupation of Cambodia.
frequently used China as a sanctuary and power
base, which gave China's ruling communists a vital
link to Pol Pot's communists and continued China's
special access to Cambodia.
S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from
San Francisco, California, reporting news from
Asia since 1978, and recipient of Columbia
University's Foreign Correspondent's Award. His
websites are http://www.asia-correspondent.110mb.com