PHNOM PENH – Chile’s Julio Jeldres, official biographer of the charismatic and controversial Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk, is well aware of the intricacies and difficulties of documenting a dynasty that is treated at par with divinity, but also one that could be nearing its end.
The association between Jeldres and King Sihanouk began casually, when in 1967, out of curiosity the Chilean wrote a letter to the United Nations’ permanent mission in Cambodia.
“They did not reply until four months later, when I received a letter from the king, saying he was glad that a Chilean was interested in his country and that he was going to send me information,” the academician, who was then a teenager living in Santiago, told EFE.
“In a few weeks, a full library on Cambodia arrived, and in this way, our friendship developed,” he added with a laugh.
Correspondence between Jeldres and the king, who died in 2012, continued for a while although they did not meet in person, and it was only broken when for three and a half years during the genocidal Khmer Regime (1975-1979).
Forty years after the first missive, the Chilean was invited by the monarch to visit North Korea, then being ruled by Kim Il-sung, and where he was living in exile.
In those years, China and North Korea were Sihanouk’s main allies, after General Lon Nol ended his neutral foreign policy and forced him to abdicate in a coup in 1970, a move supported by the United States.
Backed by Beijing and motivated by his ambition to recover his position as Head of State, King Sihanouk sided with the Communist Khmer Rouge, encouraging a movement he had forcefully repressed during his reign.
“I believe that most of the criticism against the king – that he had been a Communist during the Cold War – is not valid. What the king was trying to do was maintain the independence and territorial integrity of Cambodia,” Jeldres said.
With the Khmer Rouge in power, King Sihanouk stepped down against the horror caused by a regime that was responsible for the death of one-fourth of the country’s population (1.7 million), including children, in their attempt to build an agrarian Communist utopia.
After the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979 in the hands of Vietnam, a socialist government came to power, and eventually in 1993, constitutional monarchy was restored during a democratic transition, supervised by the United Nations.
During this time, power remained in the hands of leaders, handpicked by Hanoi in 1979, among them Prime Minister Hun Sen, a defecting commander of the Rouge, who has continued to head the government for more than 30 years now.
“There was information that Hun Sen was going to put an end to the monarchy,” Jeldres recalled.
However, the monarchy continued to play a symbolic role, although according to the biographer, its influence declined, following the abdication of King Sihanouk in 2004 and his death in 2012.
“The King (Norodom Sihamoni) is different because he never wanted to be king, he was not prepared to be king,” said the Chilean about the current monarch who, before being crowned, was Cambodia’s cultural ambassador and a classical instructor in Paris for more than 20 years.
The legacy of King Sihanouk, worshipped by most Cambodians and considered a controversial personality for his turbulent political life, has been partly documented in the works of Jeldres, who has still not published his biography out of respect for the Queen Mother Norodom Monineath.