So Long, Sihanouk

Cambodia's king was many things, including an early advocate of marriage equality

Monday, Oct. 15, was Cambodian ”King-Father” Norodom Sihanouk’s last day on this mortal plain. It’s okay, don’t be sad. He was 89, after all.

His life was also full, to say the least, though not necessarily unblemished. Some consider him a collaborator to the Khmer Rouge genocide, which included some of his children as victims. It might well have included him. Others regarded him as a pointless playboy. Seems he did like a good time.

Generally, I have a distaste for royalty. I’m not one to tune in for jubilees, coronations or royal weddings. I’m an American. I believe in democracy. I’m reflexively suspicious of anything handed down by familial ties, whether it’s a seat on the board or a royal title.

Cambodia, however, has a little spot wedged into my worldview. When I was a child, my Army dad would return from Southeast Asia with stories of Cambodia. He’d done time in Vietnam in the early 1970s, too, but mostly spoke of Cambodia. He brought me these fantastical papier-mâché masks of ghastly Cambodian characters. When I was older, he told me about a Cambodian woman who was essentially his concubine, minus the Madame Butterfly romanticism. He guesses that when the Khmer Rouge came to power, she would’ve been executed if for no other reason than her association with him. Of course, when possibly a third of a country is killed – whether by execution, hunger or being worked to death – nobody’s chances are very good.

When I was older still, my father having gone the way of his Cambodian girlfriend, a close friend began doing fieldwork in human rights and rule of law in Phnom Penh. She collected so many frequent flier miles on these long Cambodia trips she was able to bring her sister and me to join her for a week in Thailand in 2000. Though Cambodia beckoned across the border, I didn’t make it that far. I instead explored Cambodia through some books, particularly When Broken Glass Floats, in which Chanrithy Him recounts surviving the Cambodian Holocaust.

In 2004, I crossed paths with Cambodia in a new way. It was then that Sihanouk came out publicly in favor of marriage equality. Maybe not such a big deal for a king of a small and poor country, a figurehead with no formal power. It was an endorsement that caught my attention nonetheless. In 2004, marriage equality was hardly as common as it is today. It was watching the front lines of the marriage fight – in particular, San Francisco issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, later voided by the California Supreme Court – that prompted Sihanouk’s advocacy. He was not pestered to take a stand. He was hardly on the world stage at the time. He wasn’t even in Cambodia, but getting medical attention in China. But spending his life adapting to unusual circumstances, in the 21st century he’d adapted to the Web and was a busy blogger. So that’s where he announced his support for equality.

With this rare and welcome expression putting Cambodia in front of me once again, I felt compelled to send an email to cyber-savvy King Sihanouk thanking him. I was surprised to receive an email response – complete with signature image – a few days later.

”It was very kind of you to send me a warm message of appreciation and greetings following my declaration of support for same sex marriages,” the king wrote. ”With my sincere thanks and best wishes for happiness, please accept the assurance of my cordial consideration.”

He signed it, ”Sincerely, Norodom Sihanouk, King of Cambodia; Beijing, February 27, 2004.”

Sihanouk may be remembered. Maybe not. Even in Cambodia, it seems he’d already become a sort of relic, revered by the old, but irrelevant to the young. But I’ll always remember my royal correspondence and the king who learned at least by his last years to stand on the right side of history.

Follow Will O'Bryan on Twitter @wobryan.

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