Norodom Sihanouk & Zhou Enlai
by Julio A. Jeldres
An extraordinary friendship on the fringes of the Cold War
Publisher: Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-CAM), with an USAID grant.
Language : English
This fascinating story of the personal friendship between Cambodia's King Father and the charismatic leader of Communist China brings to us new perspectives on the West-East power balance in Southeast Asia and the remarkable, if sometimes tragic, Cambodian quest for neutrality and a "third way" in the midst of both the Cold War and the Vietnam War.
With many never-published references, including diplomatic correspondences and interviews with the major protagonists of the 1960s and 1970s convulsive decades, this richly illustrated book clearly exposes the clash of national interests and hegemonical pursuits in the region, and in particular the firm support Prime Minister Zhou Enlai ensured to Prince Sihanouk when his authority was challenged on two fronts: the pro-US, CIA-supported coup of General Lon Nol in 1970, and the increasing radicalization of the Khmer Rouge faction under the influence of the tenants of the Maoist "Cultural Revolution", namely the "Gang of Four" and the "Shangai Leftists".
The friendly, mutual trust between the two leaders had started as early as 1954 and 1955, when the Geneva Conference on Indochina and the Bandung Afro Asian Conference reflected the aspirations of decolonized countries willing to follow their own path to social and economic development, far from agressive capitalism and dogmatic communism. Zhou Enlai's first official visit to Cambodia in November 1956, when the refined, well-spoken leader marveled at the Angkor temples,
While the American administration was showing increasing concern and hostility towards a Cambodia supposedly too close to China for comfort, the book shows how both Zhou Enlai and Sihanouk had to navigate a narrow path with the growing influence of the radicals in Mao Zedong's entourage. It also discloses how many Western governments -- the Dutch and the British with particular acrimony -- turned their back to Sihanouk when he had to to find refuge in Beijing from the Lon Nol putschists.
The complexity of the situation then faced by the Cambodian royalty was truly mind-boggling: factional rivalries within the US administration and the Maoist regime, pressures from the Vietnamese leaders to abandon neutrality, hard-liner US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger contributing to the rise of the Khmer Rouge with his narrow-minded push for "war escalation" against Vietnam...
A compelling and highly enjoyable reading, the book is a major apportation to a better, more nuanced understanding of the history of modern Cambodia, its specific connection to China and its original world outlook.
Tags: King Norodom Sihanouk, Modern Cambodia, modern history, China, Vietnam War, international relations
About the Author
Julio A. Jeldres
Ambassador Julio Armando Jeldres (b. 1 Dec. 1950, Santiago de Chile) was a teenager in faraway Chile when, in 1967, he wrote directly to the King Palace of Cambodia wanting to know more about the fascinating Kingdom at the other end of the world. An epistolary relationship started, until the young Chilean met with King Norodom Sihanouk in Pyongyang at the start of the 1990s, becoming His Majesty's personal secretary from 1981 to 1991, and Official Biographer since 1993.
With a PhD in History from Monash University (2015), Julio Jeldres authored in 2003, amongst several books and essays, "The Royal House of Cambodia", a reference on all things royal in Cambodia. An updated edition was released in January 2018. Since 2013, he serves as a Counsellor to the Cabinet of HM King Sihamoni with rank of Minister of State, and remains a close adviser to HM the Queen Mother Norodom Monineath.
A specialist in the history of Cambodia's diplomacy, he has studied the development of the Cambodian stance on neutrality and non-alignment, and authored an insightful study on the special relationship between the late King Norodom Sihanouk and and China's Foreign Minister Zhou En Lai.
A Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Phnom Penh Sleuk Rith Institute of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, Ambassador Jeldres contributed to the installation of the Queen Mother's Library at the Royal Palace, which opened in 2021 (open to the public since June 2022).
In June 2022, Julio Jeldres honored Angkor Database by donating part of his personal book collection and archive to ADB library in Siem Reap.
A portrait by Loeung Yongsoeng, 2021
Read a bioportrait by Brent Crane in The Phnom Penh Post (2016), 'Sihanouk and the Teen from Santiago'.