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Southeast Asia: The Prince & the Dragon

24 minute read

SOUTHEAST ASIA The Prince & the Dragon (See Cover) It was a great party. After the French champagne and the Viennese waltzes came Bopha Devi, prima ballerina of the Royal Cambodian Ballet. Sinuous and shimmering, dressed in green and gold, she danced a ritual dance in bare feet. When she accidentally dropped her ring, a woman servant slithered across the parquet floor on her belly to pick it up lest Bopha bruise herself.

Bopha is the daughter of Cambodia’s Prince Sihanouk, who was the proud host. Graciously he explained the theme of the dance to the spectators: it concerned the encounter of Moni Mekhala, Goddess of Waters, with Ream Eyso, the Storm Spirit. If the mythology was a little confusing, that was only what the world had come to expect of His Royal Highness Norodom Sihanouk Varman, Cambodia’s Retired King, Commander in Chief, Supreme National Leader of Buddhism — and known to some unkind Western detractors as “Snookie.”

The reference to the Storm Spirit was appropriate enough. Even as the party honoring the visiting French ambassador to Laos was in progress, Sihanouk’s government was whipping up a propa ganda campaign against the U.S., built around the preceding week’s incident along the frontier between Cambodia and South Viet Nam.

Pursuing some Communist Viet Cong guerrillas who had fled across the ill-patrolled and ill-marked border, South Vietnamese T-28s had bombed the village of Chantrea, four miles inside Cambodia; the planes were followed on the ground by South Viet Nam troops accompanied by U.S. observers. Seventeen Cambodians were killed. Both the U.S. and South Viet Nam apologized for the unfortunate incident, a part of the even more unfortunate, long and deadly war in Viet Nam. But Sihanouk plastered horror pictures on every available wall and took to the radio in his terrier’s tenor, accusing the U.S. of masterminding the attack. The Prince demanded that Washington pay reparations, including “one bulldozer or a powerful tractor for each of our dead.”

Upstaging the Cold War. To demonstrate Cambodian neutrality, 13 of the Viet Cong fighters who had taken refuge in Cambodia were sentenced to one year of “rest” in prison. Then Sihanouk took off in his French helicopter to go village-hopping, make speeches, and shower bolts of cloth and other gifts from his chopper upon the amazed peasants below. Sihanouk also continued a shrill diplomatic campaign that seems to assume that Cambodia, with its 5,500,000 people—a country known to many Westerners only vaguely as the locale of the magnificent, slumbering old temples of Angkor Wat—is somehow at the heart of the international scene and the center of the cold war.

What Sihanouk has been demanding for weeks is a 14-nation conference, preferably at Geneva, representing the major powers and his Southeast Asian neighbors, to guarantee Cambodian neutrality and settle some local border disputes. At various times, he announced he would (and would not) settle for a four-power meeting instead; proposed (and called off) two-power talks directly with South Viet Nam; set a deadline (and postponed it) for the convening of the 14-power conference; berated the U.S. and Britain for dragging their feet on the conference proposal. The U.S. opposes a large conference mostly because the Communists would be bound to entangle it in propaganda maneuvers concerning the war in South Viet Nam. From Moscow Nikita Khrushchev sent a message supporting the conference plan. And Charles de Gaulle, offering to work for a compromise, in a letter to Sihanouk counseled patience in the year’s most magnificent diplomatic hyperbole: “I trust in the calm wisdom of Your Royal Highness.”

In the meantime, His Royal Highness kept threatening: “I will go to Peking.” Unless he gets satisfaction on his conference proposal, he said, he would reluctantly take Cambodia out of its neutralist position and move over into the Communist camp.

Maximum Trouble. The U.S. is not precisely quaking at the prospect. Cambodia already serves in effect as a refuge, staging area and partial supply line for the Viet Cong; although Sihanouk officially denies this, he unofficially promises that if he gets his way on the conference, he will then keep Cambodia from being so used. A formal tie with Red China, which he already calls “our No. 1 friend and protector,” would aggravate but need not seriously affect the Vietnamese war. Besides, there is evidence that Red China does not really want a close embrace with Sihanouk, that it prefers the present situation in which Peking carries a minimum of responsibility for Cambodia while the little country causes a maximum amount of trouble for the West.

Then why not leave Sihanouk to his theatrics and ignore him? To some extent this is precisely what the U.S. is doing—to Sihanouk’s mounting irritation. His vanity was particularly hurt when Bobby Kennedy failed to drop in during his recent trip to Malaysia. The temptation to write off Sihanouk as a temperamental dilettante and his country as a Far Eastern comic-opera setting is strong. To many, Sihanouk appears so eccentric that, as one Western diplomat puts it, “everyone wants to be his psychiatrist.” Various theories have been developed to account for his moods, including the fact that every so often he goes on a crash diet; U.S. Foreign Service dispatches to Washington frequently start: “This being the diet season, it is useless …” A man full of energy and diffuse talents, Sihanouk has been known at various times as a playboy, saxophonist, composer, lyricist, painter, sportsman, linguist, scenarist, cinematographer, Asian method actor and rice-bowl philosopher.

And what a country! The sparsely populated Cambodian outback (50% virgin jungle) harbors 7-ft. cobras that drop in for dinner. There is also a viper called the Two-Step—it bites you, you take two steps and die. Bees the size of shuttlecocks kamikaze across the steaming landscape, and Cambodian cockroaches get so big they almost block traffic. Noonday temperature at Siem-reap, the site of Angkor Wat, averages 130°, and dysentery is so prevalent that it has given rise to a style of half-trot called “the Cambodian canter.”

Chits for Everything. In the clean, graceful former French colonial capital of Pnompenh, women glide silently in their vivid sampots (floor-length sarongs), while pousse-pousses (pedicab taxis) clog the broad, tree-lined avenues. Orange-robed Buddhist monks contemplate under bougainvillaea and tamarind trees, watched by some of the mangiest dogs west of El Paso. From gardens gecko lizards cry “Gecko, gecko, geck-o”—and some consider this the nearest thing to logic one hears in Pnompenh.

After shooting a movie in Cambodia, British Actor Peter (Becket) O’Toole reported his typical tourist’s reaction: “At 4 a.m., someone bangs on the door to deliver your laundry. ‘Bug off,’ I’d say, which is evidently Cambodian for ‘Come in.’ They’d come right ahead, with some paper to sign. Paper, paper, paper, sheaves of it. That’s always a sign when a country’s about to go to hell. Chits for everything.”

Cambodia is not necessarily going to hell just yet, but most of Southeast Asia inevitably looks to Western eyes like Never-Never Land. During U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s latest visit to South Viet Nam, a Buddhist monk appeared at the American embassy, explained that he lived in a palm tree in a nearby province and asked to show McNamara the contents of a basket he was carrying. In the basket was a cat, peacefully suckling three hungry mice and a kitten. The monk explained that his mixed bag illustrated the ideal of universal tranquillity and symbolized the way to reach a settlement of the Vietnamese war. Nowhere is there more Buddhist talk of tranquillity and less practice of it.

The Chinese conquered most of the area before Christ was born and ruled it for 1,000 years before Columbus discovered America. When not battling the hordes from the north, the Indo-Chinese slaughtered each other. Burma carried out devastating invasions of Thailand in the 16th and 18th centuries; Thailand fought Viet Nam for control of Laos; both the Thais and the Vietnamese marched southward against Cambodia. In the 14th century, Thailand finally destroyed Cambodia’s then-great Khmer Empire, and 200 years ago the Vietnamese overran Saigon—which was a Cambodian fishing village. The European colonizations beginning in the 17th century put a stop to the feuding. But in the years since the colonial bonds were broken following World War II, most of the old ani mosities have burst forth again.

Spain of the Sixties. Individually the countries may seem too exasperating and unimportant to bother about. Their per capita income (with the exception of Malaysia) averages between $50 and $100 a year; their illiteracy rate is 30% or 40% ; their political stability is about as solid as a bamboo in a breeze. Yet taken as a whole, they matter greatly. Says a veteran U.S. foreign officer in Hong Kong: “Southeast Asia is the Spain of the 1960s. If we can’t and don’t win here, how can any friend of ours believe we can win anywhere?” And in Saigon, U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge adds: “We are not talking about some small neck of the woods, but of an area about 2,300 miles long and 3,000 miles wide, with about 240 million people.”

The key to the situation remains the U.S. struggle to keep South Viet Nam from falling to Communism. The coun try’s goateed little Premier, Nguyen Khanh, on whom Washington has now placed its chips, is doing his best to take hold; last week he received a unanimous vote of confidence (there was little choice) from the 53 members of the Military Revolutionary Council, which supposedly governs the country. In Washington, Secretary McNamara repeated once again that the U.S. will not pull out of South Viet Nam and left open the possibility of direct action against North Viet Nam if it becomes necessary. Just what that action might be was no clearer than before. But it has been clear for a long time what would happen if South Viet Nam gave way to Communism: the reaction described by the famous “domino theory” would undoubtedly set in.

First to be knocked over by the fall of South Viet Nam would obviously be Laos and Cambodia. Little Laos, “Land of the Million Elephants”—or the Million Irrelevants, as Americans on the scene put it—lies bloodied and paralyzed by a Geneva neutralist agreement that has resulted only in chaos. The pro-Communist Pathet Lao and the neutralist-rightist armies fire dutifully at each other amid the gigantic burial urns on the Plain of Jars, usually trying not to hit each other but still taking a daily toll of human life. Recently, gunfire erupted one night in the backwater capital of Vientiane (two stop lights, one sidewalk). It was an eclipse of the moon, and to the natives that meant but one thing: a frog, presumably inhabited by an evil spirit, was swallowing the moon. The gunfire broke out when everyone, following tradition, began shooting at the moon to frighten away Mr. Frog.

Fear of the Future. Next, Thailand would be severely threatened. In Bangkok last week, the Great Emerald Buddha, Palladium of the Kingdom, had been dressed in his summer costume of emerald-encrusted gold filigree—a ritual uninterrupted by political tension following the recent death of Strongman Sarit Thanarat. Though a scandal involving Sarit’s finances has been tossed into the lap of his successor, General Thanom Kittakachorn, and in the north a pocket of pro-Red outlaws persists, anti-Communist Thailand is still the stablest country in the neighborhood. But it would -have a hard time holding up amid the other falling dominoes.

Likely to fall would be Burma, given its 1,370-mile frontier with Red China. Dictator Ne Win is plunging his country headlong into instant socialism, further dislocating a society racked by civil strife. In his two years in power, Ne Win has nationalized all banks, taken 70% of trade out of private hands. Two weeks ago, soldiers in battle dress invaded and seized more than 3,000 wholesale stores in Rangoon. Meanwhile, upwards of 2,500 political prisoners are behind bars—paradoxically including many Communists. Half a dozen insurgent guerrilla bands, two of them Communist, roam the hinterlands.

With the Indo-Chinese peninsula and Burma gone, the pressure southward would become increasingly hard to resist. The healthy, vigorous and anti-Communist Malaysian Federation, already under attack by Indonesia, would probably have to fight for its life. Indonesia itself would draw ever closer to the Communist camp. The Philippines would probably hold out but would be severely menaced.

What motivates Cambodia’s Prince Sihanouk is the fear and expectation that all this may happen in the foreseeable future. Moreover, Sihanouk is almost pathologically afraid that Cambodia’s neighbors, who destroyed the Khmer Empire and have encroached on Cambodian territory ever since, will crush his country completely unless he can make a deal with the most powerful nation in the area—Red China. He may have read André Malraux’s The Royal Way, in which one character remarks: “Don’t forget that the Khmer temples were built without cement. Like castles made of dominoes.”

Zigzag Diplomacy. Sihanouk has executed such a dizzying series of flip-flops in the cold war that he is getting to be known as the man who would rather switch than fight.

In 1956 he rejected the protection of SEATO and seemingly pulled away from the U.S. In the next couple of years, he denounced Communism and described U.S. aid as indispensable to keep Cambodia from falling to the Reds. In 1958 he recognized Red China, and ever since then he has continued to move in a zigzag pattern—or “sawtooth,” as he himself frankly calls it.

But the overall direction has been ever closer to Red China. In one of his latest visits to Peking, the Prince was feted at every turn and was greatly impressed by the sheer mass of humanity he saw. “They never end,” he said. “The people never end.”

He was shaken by the overthrow of President Diem’s regime in South Viet Nam last fall, convinced that it was engineered by the U.S. He decided that a similar fate might befall him if he leaned on the U.S. too much. Abruptly he told Washington to stop aid—later typically complaining that U.S. officials had acted on his request too hastily. He recalled his ambassador to Washington, renewed old charges that the CIA was behind a clandestine radio operated by his domestic opposition. He was also still convinced that when he received a “present” from an unknown donor in 1959 and the box turned out to contain a bomb, the CIA was to blame.

Yet every step of the way, the Prince protested that he did not want his country to go Communist. He announced that he would replace American aid with that of another Western power, his old colonial master, France—but he also sent an arms-buying mission to Peking. Three weeks ago, not long after he expressed the hope that “the United States and Cambodia would soon be friends again,” came a high point: in Pnompenh, mobs urged on by a Ministry of Information sound truck stormed the American and British embassies. They left the USIS office looking as if it had been hit by a tornado, forced the evacuation of 63 U.S. dependents.

His radio attacks on the U.S. and its allies, broadcast for domestic consumption, became so agitated that the U.S. State Department refuses to release monitored transcripts to the press so as not to aggravate the situation. Says one Washington hand: “We are now in the preposterous position where it is easier to get intelligence estimates of Soviet missile capacity than transcripts of a Sihanouk broadcast.”

Yet there is method in Sihanouk’s behavior. Even his enemies concede that he is a sincere patriot, obsessed by the desire to keep Cambodia independent. The closer the U.S. draws to his old enemies, the Vietnamese and the Thais, the more he feels he must swing to the other side in order to balance matters. He is probably serious when he says he does not really want the victory of Communism in Southeast Asia, because Cambodian independence depends on the continuing, balanced enmity between Communism and the West. Says he: “The day all Viet Nam is reunited under the Communists and Thailand also joins the Socialist camp, on that day we will be in danger of death.”

That, he insists, is why he wants an international guarantee of Cambodian neutrality. “Suppose one day your camp is defeated,” he told TIME Correspondent Eric Pace last week. “I apologize, but it is my conviction it will be. If I have nothing to show that we are a legally neutralist country with legal acceptance by an international conference, how can we survive? I don’t trust the Communists too much. No, no. But recognition is much better than not having it.” On another occasion he said: “Communism is inevitable in Asia. It is to be hoped that China will not absorb us geographically. At worst, we will be a sort of Hungary, but we will keep our name, our flag and our identity.”

Wayward Boy-King. However such opinions may strike the West, they convince Sihanouk’s own people. Of all the rulers of Southeast Asia, he is probably the most popular inside his own country, partly because he has an aura both of divine kingship and grass-roots politics. Sihanouk succeeded to the ancient Khmer throne in 1941 at 19, when the French were still firmly in control of Cambodia. Although his name, from the Sanskrit, means “lionhearted,” he was a pampered prince, fussed over by a covey of nannies; not long ago, to illustrate the importance of milk to a conference of his economic advisers, he introduced them to his old wet nurse.

The French picked Sihanouk over his seemingly tougher uncles, who were actually in line for the succession, because they thought that the boy would be more pliable. For the first few years, it looked as though they had been right. Sihanouk became an inveterate sampot-chaser, thereby entangling himself in a web of domestic complexities. Royal records are kept secret, but he has apparently been married six times, sired 14 children. His current favorite and constant companion: Monique, the lovely half-Italian, half-Cambodian beauty-contest winner whom Sihanouk met when he awarded her a pageant prize in 1951.* Five of his sons are studying abroad: two in France, one in Prague, one in Moscow, and one in Peking. The Prince, true to his neutralism, says he is ready to send one child to school in the U.S., but only a daughter. “For boys I prefer the Communist camp, because education there is severe.”

The Prince dabbled in almost all the arts, composed popular songs; one of them, entitled Fleur de Vientiane, is still tops on the Cambodian hit parade.

He also wrote martial numbers and at least one symphony. Setting up his own studio in the palace, Sihanouk began producing motion pictures (for charity) starring himself, with a supporting cast of Cambodian civil servants. With characteristic impartiality, Sihanouk played both a detective and a villain.

He took to painting Cambodian landscapes—significantly, he has since done a picture of Mao Tse-tung’s birthplace. He acquired a taste for fast sports cars and blooded horses, on which he became an excellent jumper. More recently, Sihanouk has fielded his own palace soccer, basketball and volleyball teams and led them against various other teams.

The Transformation. With typical forthrightness, he once told his subjects in a radio broadcast: “It is true that from 1941 to 1952 when I was King, still young and handsome, certain pretty specimens of the feeble sex liked my company, and it came about that I sinned.”” But then Sihanouk turned suddenly to the role of a serious politician.

He maintains that he was transformed by the death of his last child, a five-year-old daughter, in 1952—which he looked upon as a supernatural sign of punishment. To that point, Sihanouk had done little more toward independence than replace Paris’ protectorate with “autonomous” membership within the French Union.

Now he threw himself into a fight for total freedom. First, Sihanouk took the field as a general and helped lead Cambodian troops against the Viet Minh Communist guerrillas from North Viet Nam then trying to get a toe hold in Cambodia. Strapping on a Colt .45 and donning an Aussie hat, the young King commanded half a company of Cambodian troops, shared field rations, slept in a pitched tent.

In June 1953, he drove off to Bangkok, vowing never to return until Paris granted Cambodia independence. But he changed his mind and came back after a week—only to begin ominously training Cambodians to rise against their foreign rulers. A few months later the French, already losing their anti-guerrilla war in Viet Nam, gave Cambodia full freedom, and the Prince returned to Pnompenh in triumph, was christened “Père de I’lndépendance.”

Good Subversion. All the while, Sihanouk moved shrewdly to make himself a people’s prince. In 1955 he dramatically abdicated the throne and became Premier and later Chief of State. Said he: “I want to show that I do not cling to power, authority and privileges. As King, I only saw the flowers and heard the lies.”

Sihanouk maintains a political party, the People’s Socialist Community, which unsurprisingly holds all 91 seats in the National Assembly. In his ceaseless inspection tours, he is bouncy and ebullient. A shrewd politician, he likes to address crowds after “giving something to the people”; this he calls “good subversion.” In speeches, he is apt to tell his audiences anything that comes to his mind, including information given him in confidence by foreign diplomats, convulses his listeners with bawdy jokes. In the words of one recent Western visitor, the Cambodians “have to laugh every two minutes or they get restive.”

Papa Knows Best. To popularize manual labor in his lackadaisical land, the Prince, clad in black shorts and T shirt, wields pick and shovel in one-day stints on public works projects. The gesture is more than symbolic, for Sihanouk digs harder than any coolie and expects his entourage, usually including the diplomatic corps, to do likewise. He has a passion for details; once, before a palace banquet for visiting Princess Alexandra of Great Britain, the Prince was seen giving the silverware a last-minute polish. Another time, just before dedication ceremonies for the U.S.-built “Friendship Highway,” Sihanouk ordered his Minister of Public Works to drive 125 miles to the port of Sihanoukville and flush all the toilets in a temporary rest house, to make sure that the modern facilities were in working order for the guests.

Naturally Sihanouk has jailed or exiled some of his opposition, but he has also brought opponents into the government. He denounces Cambodian Communist leaders as “valets and bloodsuckers.” A much more serious threat than the native Communists is the Communist-infiltrated Chinese community, which Sihanouk is careful to leave alone. Economically, fertile Cambodia has not yet been hurt by the shutoff of American aid ($30 million a year) or by Sihanouk’s own statist policies. He has organized peasant cooperatives, nationalized imports and exports, but claims in inimitable fashion that his Socialism is based not on Marx but on Buddha.

Says Sihanouk: “My people want me to be responsible for everything. They say, ‘Papa, Papa, you must give us electricity and water.’ They say, ‘Papa, I cannot sleep. You must make me sleep.’ ” It was told of the legendary Laotian half-god, Prince Betsardh, that he could order the crocodiles back into their holes to make the rivers safe. Says Sihanouk ironically: “Well, of course, I can do the same.”

A Reason to Fight. That is obviously the magic the U.S. needs in Southeast Asia. The staggering U.S. task is not only to order the Red guerrillas back into their holes. Americans are told on all sides that they must give Southeast Asia’s people something to fight for, some overwhelming reason why a poor, semiliterate population, ignorant of political freedom and without a smattering of political philosophy, should be ready to die fighting Communism. In effect, this is asking the U.S. to create new, viable societies—which the French notably failed to do during their rule. And the French had centuries for it; the U.S. only ten years ago moved into the vacuum left by France, and is now berated in Paris for not wanting to give up too.

De Gaulle’s plans for neutralization of Viet Nam and the whole region look attractive on the surface. He plausibly speaks of a political solution where a military one is impossibly difficult, of giving the countries involved another choice besides the often deadly one between Communism or the U.S. Appealing though the thought might be for the U.S. to get out of what, at best, can only be more years, if not decades, of fighting, the French plan breaks down because a neutral area so close to Red China and already so deeply infiltrated by Communists seems unthinkable.

One-Sided Neutralism. An international political miracle would have to be performed to keep neutralization from turning most of Southeast Asia into one major Laos—or worse. And in Laos, even Sihanouk himself admits that neutrality is “an impossible dream.” The French themselves, who started out by claiming that all of Viet Nam could be neutralized, now admit that it really comes down to neutralizing South Viet Nam only. The Chinese would never permit it in the north.

Not that North Viet Nam does not have its troubles. Ho Chi Minh’s Communist Lao Dong party is divided between its pro-Moscow and pro-Peking factions, and “Uncle” Ho has his hands full keeping things in balance. Rice rations were trimmed last month for the third time in a year, sugar grows increasingly short, meat is a luxury available only to the army and select workers —and then a ration of only three-quarters of a pound per week. Even coal and steel production, of which Hanoi was once so proud, is lagging. And though Ho Chi Minh continues to direct and aid the subversive war against South Viet Nam, for all his bluster he seems nervous about the possibility of stepped-up U.S. support of Saigon—or the war’s being carried to his own country.

Awaited Demonstration. Washington last week launched a poster campaign urging Americans to support the South Viet Nam war effort and stressing the U.S. commitment there. In its way, the drive underlined the fact that, in the end, it is only in Viet Nam that a real answer can be made to Sihanouk and others who think as he does. Only there can the U.S. prove that he is wrong in believing that Red China will win in Southeast Asia—if he is wrong. Troublesome and sometimes irrational though he may be, Cambodia’s Prince undoubtedly represents the feelings, spoken or unspoken, of many another Asian leader sitting under the shadow of the widely hated Chinese dragon—and unsure how long the U.S. can hold the monster at bay.

The war, after all, is not between the U.S. and neutralists, though they often make it more difficult, but between the U.S. and Communism—with those in between straining anxiously to spot the winner. So far, given the pullback from the Yalu in Korea, the messy compromise in Laos, and the stalemate in Viet Nam, Washington has not yet demonstrated that it knows how to tame the dragon in Never-Never Land. Until the U.S. does so, the Sihanouks will have reason to run scared.

*The other wives: Kanhoe, member of the Royal Cambodian Ballet, now divorced and remarried; Princess Sisowath Phongsanmoni, half sister of his mother, also divorced and remarried; Princess Sisowath Monikessan, who died after bearing one son; Mam Manivan, a Lao girl whom Sihanouk brought back from Vientiane after an official visit in 1949 (her present status is unclear); Princess Norodom Thavet Norleak, a first cousin whom the prince married in 1955 and who technically ranks as No. 1 wife.

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