• U.S.

CAMBODIA: Bird in the Bush

4 minute read

“I beg you,” Cambodia’s impetuous young King Norodom Sihanouk entreated his subjects in a surprise broadcast last March, “permit me to leave my gilded cage.” With that, he turned over the monarchy’s six-tiered parasol to his father, Suramarit. After 14 years on the throne, 32-year-old Sihanouk was convinced that, “If I ever lose this King job, maybe I can go to Hollywood. They like Oriental characters over there, don’t they? Maybe I could be a Cambodian Charlie Chan.”

Last week, uncaged and happy, Citizen Sihanouk was flitting from village to village in a ruby-red Studebaker convertible, escorted by a fetching songstress and a loud jazz band on wheels. It was election time in Cambodia.

Princely Portrait. As King, Sihanouk enjoyed tootling a saxophone, composing love ballads, keeping race horses and elephants, a troop of dancing girls and a harem of concubines. But he was no mere playboy Oriental monarch. He also helped to win his country’s freedom from French colonial rule, led his army in a skirmish against invading Viet Minh Communists and encouraged his diplomats to stand up successfully to Molotov and Chou Enlai at last year’s Geneva meeting. Yet he felt powerless really to run his land, to keep it clear of corruption and out of a head-in-sand neutrality. Cambodia, he decided, is a monarchy ruled by politicians; he would become a politician.

He vowed, when he abdicated, never to return to power. He is not now a candidate for office. But he founded and now heads the Sangkum Party—the Socialist People’s Community—which he hopes will capture a majority of the National Assembly’s 91 seats. Sihanouk, whose portrait is the party’s symbol, stands for a strengthened parliamentary monarchy for the central government at Pnompenh and “democracy at a level the people can understand,” i.e., provincial assemblies to run local affairs and to check up on delegates to Pnompenh.

Rival Among Ruins. Chief opposition comes from the Democratic Party, whose symbol is a trumpeting elephant, and whose nominal chief is Sihanouk’s cousin, His Highness Prince Phorissara. Deep in the jungle, however, somewhere near the ruins of ancient Angkor Wat, hides the Democrats’ moving spirit, an old enemy of the ex-King. Son Ngoc Thanh was Japan’s puppet Premier of Cambodia in World War II, when ex-King Sihanouk was only in his early twenties. Since then, besides being pro-Japanese, Thanh has been pro-French, anti-French, pro-American, anti-American, pro-King and anti-King, but never very antiCommunist. He once dickered with Communism’s Ho Chi Minh for armed help in ridding Cambodia of the French. Impatient with what he felt was Sihanouk’s excessive tolerance of the French presence, Thanh mounted an armed rebellion against the King three years ago, and might have got somewhere had not King Sihanouk, by dramatically taking “political asylum” in Thailand, startled the French at Geneva into setting Cambodia free.

Thanh’s Democrats, mostly city dwellers who want power in their own hands, stand for abolishing the monarchy in favor of a republic. To Sihanouk, that is an invitation to corruption and chaos among his politically unschooled people. Says he: “We cannot afford the luxury of a republic.”

Gallic & Frank. As the campaign hotted up last week, the main issue was neutralism v. siding with the West. Wailed the Democrats’ chief newspaper: “American military aid will vassalize Cambodia and lead it to war.” Like a flash, Sihanouk shot back: “What’s wrong with American aid? Even Yugoslavia and Russia have accepted it.”

Day in and day out, French-educated Sihanouk campaigned with Gallic gestures added to high-pitched, singsong Khmer, and spoke with a candor uncommon among either kings or commoners. “I completely failed in suppressing corruption while I was King,” he shouted from his red convertible. “But I must admit I succeeded in my crusade for independence. I am not a genius. I get my ideas from the people.”

This week Cambodia’s adult males (soldiers and Buddhist monks excepted) prepared to cast their votes. Most of them, unable to read, must go by symbols. A monkey, a wooden plow, a bouquet of lotus flowers, five ears of corn designate various minor parties. If more people choose the trumpeting Democratic elephant than the portrait of the ex-King, there is always Hollywood.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com