Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Death of former King Sihanouk brings mixed reactions in Long Beach Cambodian community

By Greg Mellen Staff Writer

LONG BEACH - News of the death of Cambodia's former King Norodom Sihanouk met with predictably mixed reactions in the refugee community in Long Beach.

Sihanouk, who abdicated his thrown in 2004, died Sunday from a heart attack in Beijing, where he was being treated for a series of maladies. He was 89.

A lightning rod in life, Sihanouk was the same in death. Revered by many as the father of his people and king, Sihanouk was reviled by others as a ruthless monarch and communist collaborator.

To still others he was a victim of his tumultuous times, trying vainly to maintain power for himself and neutrality for his people in an era of enormous upheaval and devastating war in Southeast Asia.

Sara Pol-Lim, executive director of the United Cambodian Community in Long Beach, declared her political neutrality, but said that among many elders, Sihanouk was held in esteem. Long Beach has the largest Cambodian population in the United States.

"Many in my mother's generation remain humble in respect (to the king) regardless of the relations," she said.
Many Cambodians still lay a portion of the blame on Sihanouk for the genocide that left upwards of 2 million dead during Khmer Rouge reign in Cambodia. After Sihanouk was deposed from power in a coup in 1970 he gave his support to the Khmer Rouge, giving legitimacy to an until- then fringe guerrilla group.

Sihanouk later became a prisoner of the Khmer Rouge and lost five members of his family to the regime. On the other hand, he is lauded by many for leading Cambodia to independence from French rule and helping to unify the country while the United Nations brokered elections. Even his failed attempts to remain neutral during the Vietnam War and the struggle for power in Southeast Asia among superpowers were seen by some as well-meaning even if ultimately doomed.

Because of this ambivalence and sharply divided opinions about what and who Sihanouk was, the news of his death can be a touchy subject in the Cambodian diaspora. Among local leaders, it was a subject best steered away from.

When news of Sihanouk's death arrived at local temples, where Cambodian Buddhists had been observing the Pchum Ben festival of the dead, many lit incense to remember Sihanouk, Pol-Lim said.
Tippana Tith, a local activist, also wanted to remain neutral.

"I feel condolences for the king, but I have mixed reactions," Tith said.

"Older people kind of feel for him," Tith said. "But for the younger he isn't the God-king."

To Tith, the fact that Sihanouk died in China, where he was being treated after declaring in 2011 that he'd never leave his country again, was somewhat emblematic of how Sihanouk had become removed from Cambodia.

Not all can hide their anger, however.
For Paline Soth, who said he once revered the king more than his own father, Sihanouk's history is forever tainted.

"I guess he'll have a state funeral while 3 million people died like animals because of his legacy," Soth said.
Peter Chhun, a Long Beach resident who worked as an NBC cameraman during the Cambodian civil war in the early 1970s and escaped just before the the Khmer Rouge rose to power, was able to put aside his misgivings about Sihanouk's failings to mourn his king.

"He was the father of the people," Chhun said. "It's a great loss. I know the majority of Cambodian people mourn his death. It's a big shock to all of us."

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