HM King Norodom Sihanouk: A Personal Portrait I Interview with Ambassador Julio Jeldres

by Angkor Database & Julio A. Jeldres

Publication: ADB Reference Document ROY1

Published: October 15th, 2022

Pages: 5

Language : English

Q: Attempting a psychological profile of any major political leader, especially one who had to deal with so many different epochs during his career, is always a tricky exercise. You, Ambassador Jeldres, had the privilege of working and sharing so many behind-the-scene moments with HM King Norodom Sihanouk, and as an historian yourself you want to see the man and his character through the prism of history, regardless of personal bonds. The King Father has been often described as “mercurial”, especially by the Western media…

A: Mercurial, I find the term offensive. Unpredictable, yes, that His Majesty was. I’d say that he needed to be unpredictable, that unpredictability became a major part of his personality out of necessity, in particular during the pre-war and war decades, when Cambodia’s mighty neighbors, Thailand and Vietnam, revived old attempts of dividing the country between themselves. At that time, it was imperative to “keep the enemy guessing”. And even after that, during the protracted return to stability, the surprise element was an important element. I remember that on several occasions we could work on a press release at midnight, and then he would change significantly it at six in the morning.

Until 1970 [the Lon Nol coup], that unpredictability was pretty much the only political mean available to him, and the modus operandi worked quite well. But when you are unpredictable, you might also puzzle and disappoint your friends, and that is why the young King – and later on the Prince as head of State – wanted to establish firm friendships, personal relations with as many friends around the world as possible. His worldview was intrinsically immune to the bipolarization, the excesses of the Cold War. His artistic fiber since young age, embracing both French classical theater and film-making, very much informed his inclination for non-alignment, for creative, energetic post-colonialism.

Q: Precisely, some historians have argued that the Lon Nol coup was a CIA-manufactured retaliation to Norodom Sihanouk’s unconventional diplomacy.

A: The King Father himself wrote a book about that [My War with the CIA: The Memoirs of Prince Norodom Sihanouk as related to Wilfried G. Burchett, 1973]. The fact is that Cambodia opened an embassy in Cuba in 1968, that the King was on friendly terms with world leaders as diverse as Zhou Enlai, Jawaharlal Nehru, Charles de Gaulle – I heard researcher Olivier de Bernon is working on a book on the relations between De Gaulle and King Sihanouk [1] --, Indonesia’s Sukarno – who had organized the 1955 Bandung Conference, such an important moment for the King – and Suharto, Marshal Tito, who invited him to his residence in Brionii where this bon vivant showed him his huge wine cellar…

More than ideological proclamations, what Sihanouk was interested in was the achievement of young nations born of the decolonization process in the field of education, technological development, agriculture… For instance, he was so impressed by the Czechoslovakian musical education methods that he encouraged his son, HM King Norodom Sihamoni since the King Father’s second abdication in 2004, to pursue his studies in Prague, where the Prince completed a Master on Cambodian music and dance. Also, he publicly praised Israel’s success in groundbreaking irrigation system.

With the Soviet Union, the relations were cautiously friendly. Prince Sihanouk was in Moscow in March 1970 when the coup against him happened, but it is still hard to fathom how much foreign intelligence services and governments knew about this attempt to erase forever the Cambodian monarchic institution. I have researched the matter and it remains shadowy, even there is a document in the Élysée Palace archive that seems to show that President Georges Pompidou [who had been elected in June 1969] was aware of the coup preparation. As for the British government, they never understood Cambodia anyway…

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King Sihanouk with Indian leader Jawaharlal Nehru (photo from Summary Biography...)

Q: What was the Asian dimension in the King Father’s outlook on international relations?

A: The Cambodian Royal Family has always been a staunch promoter of ASEAN (although none of the ASEAN countries took King Sihanouk’s side when he was ousted by Lon Nol) and regional cooperation. Preserving the Kingdom’s neutrality during the Vietnam War was a terribly difficult task. While Prince Sihanouk had a close relationship with North Vietnam Prime Minister Pham Van Dong (1906-2000), and joined the Tet Festival celebrations in the years 1970, he never met in person with Ho Chi Minh. Yet he attended the Vietnamese president’s funerals in September 1969.

Because the Queen Mother’s father, Jean Francois Izzi, had worked in Saigon as Director of Credit Foncier, the Khmer Republic propaganda vainly attempted to smear Her Majesty’s family with rumors of some “Vietnamese connection”, which was nonsense. Mme Pomme Peang (1904-1991), HM Queen Monineath’s mother, married Izzi in Phnom Penh, and in fact she was closely linked to the Cambodian Royal family since her own mother, Madame Ouk, had been married to HRH Norodom Duongchak, eldest son of King Norodom. For the record, it was when Prince Duongchak and Mme Ouk took the young Monique-Monineath to a visit at HRH Norodom Suramarit’s residence – which was to become the Embassy of North Korea – in 1951 that King Sihanouk noticed her for the first time, and fell in love with her. Talking of North Korea, I’ll just note that Cambodia was the first kingdom to recognize its independence, and King Sihanouk was so impressed by Kim Il-sung vision for its people that he wrote a short book about North Korea’s achievements in public education and health system. Myself, I went to Pyongyang for the first time in 1981, when the King Father was on a retreat there, not holidaying as some of his detractors said. Once again, he did not see the world in black and white, and while he could relate to Kim Il-sung he was always reluctant to Singapore Lee Kuan Yew’s authoritarian traits, lamenting that the Singaporean leader was always trying and “lecturing” him. Yet the latter got high praise from all the Western hawks, from Kissinger to Margaret Thatcher. However, Lee himself and following Singaporean leaders came to Cambodia to witness directly the Kingdom’s innovative march to modernization.

Q: In his 1969 the fiction movie Crépuscule (Twilight), set in Angkor, the King Father played the role of Prince Adit, ‘adit’ meaning ‘past’ in Khmer. Deep down, what were his feelings towards Angkor, some kind of nostalgia, of ‘remembering things past’?

A: There is certainly what I’d call a “Melancholy of Angkor” in his numerous references to the capital city of the Ancient Khmer Empire. On the other hand, Angkor as a symbol of national sovereignty, and as a formidable cultural heritage to be preserved for future generations, was very much on his mind. Remember the perilous journey to Angkor he and the Queen Mother took in 1973, in the midst of the civil war and American bombings, a highly symbolical and daring experience Her Majesty recorded in the Diary I had the honor to edit and publish at her request in 2021.

After the war, the King Father positioned Angkor and the Royal Ballet of Cambodia at the very center of Cambodia’s ‘cultural diplomacy’. In all his official or private visits abroad, he would insist to have photo panels presenting both cultural wonders taken by his entourage. As for the conservation and preservation of Angkor, he had a no-nonsense approach: “The French have the know-how and the experience, they are the most qualified, let’s EFEO take care of that”, he often told me, especially after the controversy around the use of some chemicals by Indian conservationists in the 1990s. He disapproved of intents to ‘instrumentalize’ Angkor for political motives: for instance, when the Polish ambassador requested me to convince the King to personally help in raising money for funding some Polish preservation program in Angkor, he was outraged.

The trust King Sihanouk had in EFEO was such that around the time of his abdication, in February 2004, he resolved to send all of the original documents from his personal archive from 1970 onwards to the Ecole in Paris, arguing that all his library and archive previous to 1970 had been destroyed by the Khmer Rouge. Later, he sent a letter asking for part of the archive to be closed for thirty years. In July 2007, when I was invited there to help in put the archive in order, I discovered that the Sihanouk Archives had been all transferred from EFEO to the National Archives at the palais de Soubise, part of the French Archives Nationales [2]. Much earlier, the King had donated most of his fiction and documentary movies to the French Cinematheque, while some original footage remained in North Korea and other movies, along with the King’s musical scores, deposited into a special archival collection at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia.

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14 November 1991: the Cambodian royal couple, with Julio Jeldres at their side, flying back to Phnom Penh after the exile years. 'An extraordinary day!' (photo courtesy of J.J.)

Q: The most endearing memory from your many years as the King Father’s private secretary, official biographer and personal ambassador?

A: There are many fond memories, as King Sihanouk was also remarkable for his gentleness, his personable manners. Watching him interacting with the “small people” – he never considered anyone ‘small’--, the way Cambodian villagers genuinely rejoiced at ‘Papa’ suddenly irrupting in their humble existence, the way they danced to the musical bands he often took with him in his countryside tours, was truly moving. It has to be noted that HM King Sihamoni cherishes these encounters with the citizens as dearly as his late father did, even if the opportunities have been curtailed by the Covid pandemic and other limitations.

I was also charmed, and moved, by the fact that the King took always the time out of the tightest of schedules to have a nice word, a handshake, a little present for absolutely everyone involved in his travels abroad, from the official motorcade drivers to the pilots, air stewards and stewardesses on board of a plane, from art show attendants to waiters and waitresses in restaurants.

My own cherished moment came one day of June 1991 when we were working late at his Beijing residence and he told me out of the blue: “And by the way, congratulations, Your Excellency!”. Knowing that soon there would be another session of the Paris International Conference on Cambodia, he had decided to grant me the rank of Ambassador. This honor, coming from the sovereign of a faraway, mysterious and wonderful kingdom I had discovered as a naïve teenager in Santiago de Chile while stumbling upon the cover of the November 1967 issue of Life Magazine depicting Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy walking around the ruins of Angkor, went directly to my heart.

Official duties were time-consuming, of course, but we often conversed about things not related to high diplomacy or state affairs. The arts, in particular music and movies, were his favorite topic, from his passion for Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca – he was to make a movie inspired by this masterpiece – to the right pronunciation of some Spanish bolero lyrics he asked me one day to record on tape before singing them himself…

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The Princess Royal HRH Norodom Arunrasmy and Julio Jeldres in Borobodur, Indonesia, in January-March 1984 (courtesy of J.J.)

Then, there were the last poignant moments. After abdicating, the King Father was spending more time in Beijing, his ailing health monitored by Chinese doctors. In March 2012, as I was in Australia for a time, the Queen Mother summoned me to Beijing. The King Father looked frail, and hardly talked at all. I showed him the proofs of a biography of His Majesty I was then completing with the Princess Royal HRH Norodom Arunrasmy [A Life Dedicated to Cambodia, 2013]. I was deeply worried but I had to travel to Harbin for a while. When I contacted the Queen Mother to enquire about the King’s health, Her Majesty told me she was worried the end was near. Two weeks later, he passed away.

____

[1} When we asked Pr. Olivier De Bernon about the project during his visit to Phnom Penh in October 2022, he said that “I just remarked in an article written on the 50th anniversary of Général De Gaulle’s historic visit to Phnom Penh in 2016 that the matter would indeed deserve an entire book. The admiration was mutual. For instance, when France was considering to establish diplomatic relations with China, the Général suggested to the French emissaries to “stop over in Phnom Penh and see Prince Sihanouk, since he has the expertise.” Also, when the Cambodian leader was among the first to recognize the Algerian GPRA (Gouvernement Provisoire de la République Algérienne) at the Belgrade Conference, anti-independentists in the French government were furious but De Gaulle said he understood Sihanouk’s stance. The Général has even been quoted remarking after Lon Nol’s coup: « Le Prince Sihanouk à Pékin, c´est le général de Gaulle à Londres ! ».”

[2] Presenting in Phnom Penh the archival work on the more than 1 million documents and 10,000 hours of audio-recording in October 2022, Pr. de Bernon explained that the transfer occurred “only for safety and efficiency reasons. I supervised the treatment of every one and each document, as King Sihanouk had entrusted me to do it. It was a sacred mission.” According to him, Norodom Sihanouk wished to have the whole archive immediately accessible to researchers, but the French regulation required to have documents related to certain topics (health, in particular) classified for thirty years.

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Personal fax sent by King Sihanouk to Olivier de Bernon on 19 Feb. 2004 (ODB presentation of the King's Archive)

(The conversations took place in Phnom Penh in June-July 2022. Edited by Bernard Cohen)

And also

  • In 2013, The Phnom Penh Post collected various testimonies on the late King from journalists, politicians, historians including Ambassador Julio Jeldres: Recollections of the King Father (3 Feb. 2013).
  • In addition to state affairs and diplomacy, the late King used to take thousands of handwritten notes related to literature, poetry, and the arts (including the culinary art). A particularly poignant one, especially from a leader who otherwise professed optimism and "joie de vivre", is a quote from French writer Louis Aragon's Richard II quarante, reflecting his sorrow at some tragic junctures of Cambodia's history ("More sorrowful than sorrow, I remain the King of my grief"):

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"La patrie est comme une barque
Qu’abandonnèrent ses haleurs
Et je ressemble à ce monarque
Plus malheureux que le malheur..."

Richard II quarante was written in September 1940 and first appeared in a collection by Louis Aragon entitled Le crève-coeur in a 250-copy clandestine run published by Gallimard in France in 1941. Here's the poem in its entirety:

Ma patrie est comme une barque
Qu’abandonnèrent ses haleurs
Et je ressemble à ce monarque
Plus malheureux que le malheur..."
Qui restait roi de ses douleurs
Vivre n’est plus qu’un stratagème
Le vent sait mal sécher les pleurs
Il faut haïr tout ce que j’aime
Ce que je n’ai plus donnez-leur
Je reste roi de mes douleurs
Le cœur peut s’arrêter de batter
Le sang peut couler sans chaleur
Deux et deux ne fassent plus quatre
Au Pigeon-Vole des voleurs
Je reste roi de mes douleurs
Que le soleil meure ou renaisse
Le ciel a perdu ses couleurs
Tendre Paris de ma jeunesse
Adieu printemps du Quai-aux-Fleurs
Je reste roi de mes douleurs
Fuyez les bois et les fontaines
Taisez-vous oiseaux querelleurs
Vos chants sont mis en quarantaine
C’est le règne de l’oiseleur
Je reste roi de mes douleurs
Il est un temps pour la souffrance
Quand Jeanne vint à Vaucouleurs
Ah coupez en morceaux la France
Le jour avait cette pâleur
Je reste roi de mes douleurs.

Tags: King Norodom Sihanouk, Queens & Kings of Cambodia, King Norodom Sihanouk Centennial Anniversary, diplomacy, heritage preservation, EFEO, archives, Vietnam War, independence, Post-colonial Cambodia

About the Authors

Portrait of Angkor   Database

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Portrait of Julio  A.  Jeldres

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.

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A portrait by Loeung Yongsoeng, 2021

Read a bioportrait by Brent Crane in The Phnom Penh Post (2016), 'Sihanouk and the Teen from Santiago'.