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King Sihanouk's final acting role?

Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-10-13

KING Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia has declared so many times during his colourful, turbulent career that he would step down as monarch and then reversed himself, that it's hard not to engage in amateur psychoanalysis about him. The king is a compulsive attention-seeker, a showman who's somehow always able to pull off stunts. In short - and I don't mean this to sound pejorative about the plump little man - it's often difficult to take him seriously.

I should know. Many years ago, when I was a very young reporter at the New York Times, word arrived late one afternoon from a diplomatic source that the king had checked into Manhattan's Lenox Hill Hospital. He was being treated for a gall bladder ailment. The metropolitan editor of the paper, Mr Arthur Gelb, asked me to rush to the hospital to interview the king.

"But why would the king give an interview when he's supposedly ill?" I said.

Mr Gelb, a tower of creative tension, paused for a second, then said, "Tell him you're from the New York Times. Just go."

So off I went in a taxi, accompanied by Ms Marilyn Yee, a young photographer of Chinese origin for our august paper. It was the rush hour, traffic was bad, and the paper's deadline was barely two hours away.

At the hospital, of course, no one would acknowledge that the king had been admitted as a patient. As Marilyn and I explored the premises wondering how to reach the king - if indeed he was there - there was a sudden commotion. It was Mr Cyrus R. Vance, then Secretary of State in the administration of President Jimmy Carter, who was walking into the hospital lobby.

I walked up to Mr Vance, whom I'd interviewed once, and asked if he was going to visit the king.

"Yes," Secretary Vance said. "I'm here to say hello." He quickly stepped into an elevator, accompanied by a single plainclothes guard. I saw on the overhead indicator that the elevator had stopped on the fifth floor, and so I assumed that was where the king was staying.

But how to reach him?

"You're an Indian," Marilyn said to me. "There are plenty of Indian doctors in America. Who's going to know whether you're one or not?"

That was it. We coolly strode into the elevator, went up to the fifth floor, and walked up to the nurses station.

"I'm going in to see His Majesty," I said to the sole nurse at the desk.

"But he has an important visitor - the Secretary of State," the nurse said. Then she quickly added: "I don't think it will take very long, doctor."

I wore no white smock that would have identified me as a physician, nor any nametag. It was pure luck - reinforcing my colleague Marilyn's perception about all Indians being doctors - that probably led the nurse to believe that my visit was that of a medical nature.

So Marilyn and I sat on a small sofa near the nurses station. Within two or three minutes, Secretary Vance walked out. And who should be accompanying but King Norodom Sihanouk.

For a man who was reportedly down with a gall bladder ailment, the kind looked remarkably fit to me. He also looked dapper in what was clearly an expensively tailored suit.

He said goodbye to Mr Vance at the elevator and began walking back toward his room.

"Your Majesty," I said, "may I see you for a minute?"

The king smiled broadly, sat down on the sofa with Marilyn and I, and proceeded to talk for almost an hour. He was living in exile in Beijing at the time, but he was so unhappy with the Chinese that, after his New York trip, he wouldn't return to China, the king said. He talked about the ineffectiveness of the United Nations. He talked about how Pol Pot had engaged in genocide. He yearned to go back to his home in Phnom Penh, which was where he would go next. Nothing would persuade him to go back to Beijing.

The king, in fact, was so garrulous, that it was troubling. He talked about how much he liked New York. He referred to his love of jazz and music in general. He said he was a great movie buff, and a producer of films, too. He cast appreciative glances at Marilyn (I knew how much of a ladies' man the king was reputed to be). I was now barely an hour away from my deadline for the next morning's edition. The New York Times, like most newspapers, doesn't easily forgive reporters who miss turning in their stories.

"I hope you will visit me in Phnom Penh," the king said, as we parted. Marilyn happily clicked pictures. As we left, I wondered what must have been going through that nurse's mind. What kind of a physician was I who took notes as the king spoke without once producing a stethoscope? And why would my companion be taking pictures?

The Times, of course, put my article on Page One. I'd felt that the real story lay in the king's skepticism about the UN being able to intervene in the Cambodian morass. But the foreign editor at the time averred that the focus should be on the king's declaration that the king wouldn't return to Beijing but return to Cambodia instead.

The next day King Sihanouk went to Beijing. The Chinese declared it a national holiday on the day he arrived.

So these days when I read about his intentions to abdicate because of frustration over endless political wrangling in Phnom Penh - and because of his inability to get along with Prime Minister Hun Sen - I wonder.

He's said that he wouldn't change his mind about abdicating. Just like he said all those many years ago he wouldn't return to Beijing - where, by the way, he happens to be right now? Good stuff, this political theatre. But like any thespian, I don't see Sihanouk pacing in the wings for too long. His place isn't just in Cambodia's extraordinary but sad history, it's also at centre stage. A good actor craves for applause; a great one needs a big audience. If nothing else, King Sihanouk is certainly a great actor.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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