No-one in the modern history of Southeast Asia has had such a continuous and lasting effect on the politics of their country than the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia. His cremation on 4 February in Phnom Penh brought to an end a career reaching back to his coronation on 3 May 1941. Since then, in one form or another – king, prime minister, head of government in exile, guerrilla leader, king again and finally King Father after he abdicated for the second time – Sihanouk bestrode Cambodian politics.

Sihanouk’s cremation was an extraordinarily lavish affair. Rumours circulating in Phnom Penh reported that the current Cambodian strongman, Hun Sen, was “shocked” by the spontaneous outpouring of grief by the hundreds of thousands of ordinary Cambodians who lined the processional route when Sihanouk’s body was returned from China, and concluded that his government would gain popular approval by giving the King Father a right royal send-off. Whether this is true or not, Hun Sen’s order to conduct a full-scale royal cremation sent officials to scour the archives to find out proper procedures. The whole ceremony thus became an occasion to restore and celebrate Khmer traditional culture. No expense was spared in constructing the five-storey high central Phra Meru (within which the body was burned) along with its surrounding gardens, pavilions, cloisters and walls – all of which will eventually be dismantled.

All the streets converging on the cremation site beside the palace were blocked off and people kept well away. But as invited VIPs left in their fleet of cars and night fell, the barriers were drawn aside and crowds surged into the open space in front of the palace to make offerings of flowers, burn incense, pray, or just sit quietly in groups remembering – what? What did Sihanouk represent for ordinary Cambodians? Judging by the documentary footage shown repeatedly on Cambodian TV channels, Sihanouk’s great achievements were gaining independence from France in 1953, and instituting a building program in the 1960s that converted Phnom Penh into a modern city. But there was surely more than that in the minds of those who mourned his passing.

For those in their 70s, the Sihanouk years are mostly remembered as an era of peace and prosperity before war and revolution tore the country apart. In idealised form, survivors have passed on this version of history to successive generations, a version reinforced by the horrors of the decade of civil war and Khmer Rouge tyranny that followed the removal of Sihanouk from power in 1970. For some the revival of the monarchy under United Nations auspices in 1993 and the return of Sihanouk to the throne was a powerful symbol, along with the re-emergence of Theravada Buddhism, of the survival of Cambodian culture and society in face of terrible adversity.

Most Cambodians are aware of, and proud of, their Angkorean heritage. Those with even limited education know the names of one or two of their great kings, if little else. As their direct descendant, Sihanouk connected them to a glorious past that anchors Cambodian identity in the present. Even the Khmer Rouge placed the outline of Angkor Wat on their national flag. For every Cambodian, it is the person of Sihanouk who represented the monarchy, even after he relinquished the throne to his son, Norodom Sihamoni – just as he continued to do after he placed his father on the throne in 1955. For abdication is a constitutional act that in the Theravada worldview in no way diminishes the store of merit that ensured royal birth in the first place. In fact it may increase merit, as for example, when a king steps down to become a monk. Sihanouk’s evident compassion for his people and concern for their welfare added to the store of his merit in the eyes of his people. The respect paid to Sihanouk by ordinary Cambodians was for his accumulated merit, which they believe ensures rebirth directly into one of the Buddhist heavens. Its basis, therefore, is identical to the respect shown for monks and nuns.

The question most frequently asked with Sihanouk’s passing has been where does this leave the Cambodian monarchy? Well, we shall see, though at present the institution does not seem to be under threat. But if we cannot peer into the future, we can look back at the past. The more interesting question to ask, therefore, concerns Sihanouk’s historical legacy. What have his years in politics bequeathed to his country?

Between his coronation in 1941 and his overthrow in 1970, Sihanouk made two decisions that were crucial not just for his personal career, but for the history of Cambodia. These were his decision to take the leading role in Cambodia’s struggle for independence from France, and his decision to abdicate in order to assume political leadership of the country. The first of these has been widely acclaimed by both Cambodians and historians, but its celebrated outcome exacerbated two persistent weaknesses in Sihanouk’s character – his craving for adulation and his conviction that he alone had the foresight, the wisdom, and yes, the semi-divine power that comes with the possession of great merit, to guide and develop (modernise) his country. Yet Cambodia would still have obtained independence from France without Sihanouk’s dramatic exodus to Angkor, though it is true that Sihanouk’s actions took the wind out of the sails of the so-called Khmer Vietminh, enabling Cambodia at Geneva in 1954 to escape division into separate areas of control for government and insurgent forces (as in Laos).

Sihanouk’s abdication and creation of his own political movement, the Sangkum Reastr Niyum, had by contrast a much more baleful effect on modern Cambodian history. Sihanouk had already shown himself to be no friend of democracy when in 1952, with French collusion; he dismissed the popularly elected Democratic Party government, and jailed several DP leaders without trial. Those leaders were French-educated. For all their squabbles they admired French democracy. Sihanouk disliked the DP because it aimed to make Cambodia a constitutional monarchy, which would have relegated him to a largely ceremonial position. Parties further to the left were overtly republican, but particularly after 1953 they attracted limited popular support. Immediately upon independence Sihanouk could have used his considerable influence and stature to support multi-party democratic government. Instead he sought personal power.

The Sangkum masqueraded as a political party, but in reality it was an entirely different animal. Sihanouk built the Sangkum as a royal patronage network whose lofty purpose was to unify the country, but whose modus operandi was to eliminate all political opposition, or drive it underground, while concentrating power in the hands of Sihanouk as legitimate, if ex, king. The structure of the Sangkum derived from the ‘mandala’ model of the kings of Angkor, whose power rested on the loyalty of regional rulers and court officials, given in return for favours ascribed to the beneficence of the king in the form of delegated administrative authority and status. Educated urban Cambodians flocked to join the Sangkum to facilitate access to such benefits as government employment and contracts, entry to top schools and universities for their children, overseas scholarships, and useful contacts with government officials. Peasants supported the Sangkum because it was led by their meritorious king, though they got little in return.

As a political movement the Sangkum was remarkably successful. Elections were still held, but became formalities in which the Sangkum won up to 85 per cent of the vote. Such a degree of popular support fed Sihanouk’s craving for adulation and reinforced his conviction that his leadership was indispensable for the future of his country. If Sihanouk had a motto at this time, it surely was “Cambodge, c’est moi!” What was less apparent was that in establishing the Sangkum as a royal patronage network centred on himself, Sihanouk had sealed off the tiny window of opportunity that existed to create a modern democratic political order in Cambodia. Instead the Sangkum drew upon traditional Cambodian political culture to provide a model of how to concentrate and exercise political power.

Perhaps that small window of opportunity to create a democratic system in Cambodia that Sihanouk slammed shut in 1955 never really existed. Perhaps if political parties had been permitted freely to contest elections they would sooner or later have degenerated into rival patronage networks. What is certain, however, is that the very success of the Sangkum as a patronage network centred on Sihanouk as leader destroyed any possibility of instituting an alternative political order. All subsequent Cambodian leaders have applied the Sangkum model in consolidating their power.

Sihanouk used the power he gained from leadership of the Sangkum to pursue his vision for his country. That vision was of a modern Cambodia, proudly taking its place among the nations of the world. The symbols of that modernity were concentrated, however, almost entirely in Phnom Penh. Sihanouk set out to create a capital he could proudly display to international delegations and visiting heads of state. In this too he was following in the footsteps of Angkorean kings, particularly his favourite role model Jayavarman VII, who built the last great city of Angkor Thom. The boulevards, monuments, government buildings, universities, theatres and sports stadium that he built remain impressive architectural achievements for which Sihanouk will long be remembered.

Two other areas Sihanouk promoted were education and the arts. Phnom Penh came to boast seven universities, devoted to separate disciplines (medicine, law, fine arts, etc.), and a number of good secondary schools. Primary education came much lower on his list of priorities. Sihanouk had genuine compassion for the peasant families he rather disparagingly called his ‘children’, especially compared to subsequent Cambodian rulers, but did little to provide them with opportunities for economic or social advancement. Economic development was tied to government. The Sangkhum system did not promote entrepreneurship, but rather dependency on opportunities provided by working political connections.

Ironically, in the end it was the failure of tertiary education that was in large part responsible for Sihanouk’s political demise. Urban supporters of the Sangkum expected admission to universities for their children, irrespective of their abilities – and expected them to be awarded degrees. Standards fell as a result, and universities turned out graduates of poor quality in numbers too large to employ in government jobs. Avenues for advancement for the bright and ambitious were limited by the employment of the children of the politically well-connected. As popular dissatisfaction grew, Sihanouk turned to film making and the arts. For Sihanouk these were another arena to showcase Cambodian modernity, but in the process he took his eye off the political main game, and was destroyed by the weakness that makes all patronage systems inherently unstable – which is the ability of clients to shift their allegiance to another patron.

Sihanouk has been much lauded for his efforts to shield Cambodia from the war in Vietnam – and rightly so. But his commitment to neutrality and his activism within the non-aligned movement were not sufficient of themselves to insulate Cambodia from all repercussions of the Cold War – and Sihanouk knew it. So he used every means at his disposal: the media, open threats and denunciations, and secret agreements of the kind with Hanoi that guaranteed Cambodia’s borders and kept the Khmer Rouge on a leash in return for infiltration rights for Vietnamese guerrillas through Cambodian territory. At the same time his suspicion of the intentions of the Vietnamese communist regime, which he rightly believed would win the war, led him to build close relations with China as the only power with the capacity to keep Vietnam in check.

As a strategy this was remarkably perspicacious: Sihanouk foresaw likely developments in Indochina more clearly than anyone in Washington. This led him, however, to pursue a left-leaning neutrality that eventually led to a rift with the United States that deprived Cambodia of considerable US aid. This was an avoidable error on Sihanouk’s part. Neutrality works best when it is balanced, thus ensuring a competitive flow of aid from both sides. Breaking relations with Washington reinforced Sihanouk’s credentials in Beijing, but it deprived him of a significant source of projects and funds with which to ‘oil’ the Sangkum patronage network. The lack was felt most severely in the military. It would have required astute diplomacy to keep American aid flowing while currying favour with China. But it was not impossible, even under the prevailing circumstances. Relations were re-established after four years in 1969, but the damage had been done, and was an additional factor behind Sihanouk’s overthrow.

Sihanouk’s gravest error of judgment came in 1970 when he angrily responded to his removal from power by calling upon the people of Cambodia to join with the Khmer Rouge to overthrow those who had deposed him. Sihanouk acted out of hurt pride, and his egotistical belief that he alone could lead Cambodia. So blinded, he misread the situation that was unfolding, and entirely failed to understand how his action would affect his people. With Sihanouk removed, his tacit agreement with North Vietnam collapsed. Hanoi not only unleashed the Khmer Rouge, but poured in support for the insurgency – just as Sihanouk’s call to arms massively increased recruitment to the revolutionary cause.

Did Sihanouk really think that from exile in Beijing he could control the course of events in Cambodia? If so, he was delusional. Despite his friendly relations with Chinese leaders, he had always distrusted and repressed the revolutionary left inside Cambodia. Was he so ill-informed that he only realised the true nature of the Khmer Rouge once he returned to Cambodia to become their prisoner at the end of 1975? His resignation in April 1976 as titular head of what was by then the KR regime left him under palace arrest and vulnerable. That he survived the KR years was thanks to his Chinese friends.

The Vietnamese invasion that overthrew the Khmer Rouge at the end of 1979 realised Sihanouk’s worst fears: Cambodia effectively became part of an Indochinese union dominated by Vietnam. This time backed by an unholy de facto alliance between the US, ASEAN and China, Sihanouk once again found himself in coalition with the Khmer Rouge – though this time leading his own separate guerrilla force. There was no alternative, as he explained to journalists in his engaging trademark way, with Gallic shrug, upturned palms, and perplexed expression, plaintively asking: “What could Sihanouk do?”

When Vietnamese forces finally withdrew a decade later, and the United Nations moved in, Sihanouk found himself in the position he had so determinedly refused to accept forty years before: that of constitutional monarch. But democracy in the new Kingdom of Cambodia was almost bound to fail. To begin with there was no precedent. No-one except perhaps Sihanouk himself remembered that brief period of democratic government installed under the French that the Sangkum had effectively destroyed. After Sihanouk had been overthrown, Cambodia had had one military and two single-party governments, all of which concentrated power at the apex of a hierarchical organisation that brooked no political opposition. A combination of coercion and fear kept members in line and loyal to the leadership.

From the point of view of Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), the imposition of multi-party democracy in 1993 threatened their hold on power. The election result giving a narrow victory to Prince Ranarridh’s FUNCINPEC Party was perceived not as an expression of the hopes and desires of the Cambodian people, but as a call to political struggle. The CPP response was not to formulate more appealing policies, but to extend the tentacles of its social power. And its model of how this should be done was the Sangkum. The CCP set out to build a patronage network that would draw in clients through the lure of promised benefits for them and their extended families. But for this strategy to work the Party needed the wherewithal to buy client loyalty. At the same time FUNCINPEC was building its own rival patronage network, also modelled on the Sangkum, though Ranarridh was no Sihanouk. Real political competition, therefore, was not for votes, but for control over resources – in the form not only of exploitable natural resources such as timber and minerals, but also government revenues and the perks associated with foreign aid. The outcome over time was pervasive corruption – and victory for the CPP.

The CCP is not organised as and does not function as a Marxist party modelled on the Chinese or Vietnamese communist parties. Its exemplar is the Sangkum. Hun Sen does not exercise power as Chinese or Vietnamese leaders do, by virtue of the offices they hold within their respective parties, but because of his position at the apex of a vast patronage network. Hun Sen will not be deposed by a vote at a CCP congress. The only way he could lose power is through the erosion of client loyalty and their ultimate defection to alternative patrons – just as happened to Sihanouk.

Hun Sen has been the most successful Cambodian political leader over the last twenty years in large part because he modelled himself closely on Sihanouk, even down to how he comports himself in public. Sihanouk owed his political status to his birth and his achievement of independence from France; Hun Sen can only advert to his role in freeing Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge through alliance with Vietnam. He has therefore had to rely more on greasing the strings of patronage. This is why it took so long to pass an anti-corruption law, which is in any case ineffective. It was passed to ensure the continuation of foreign aid (so avoiding Sihanouk’s mistake), which is necessary if revenue is to be freed up for patronage. The patronage network that keeps Hun Sen in power has produced massive maldistribution of wealth, most of which has been concentrated in Phnom Penh, plus a few regional centres like Siem Reap. Few resources have trickled out to rural areas, not even for basic health care or primary education, because too much revenue gets siphoned off into private pockets.

This is unlikely to change while Hun Sen maintains his patronage network in place. Like the monarchy (or North Korea), Hun Sen reportedly wants his position to become hereditary, to be handed on to one of his sons. This makes even more evident the extent to which Hun Sen has taken Sihanouk and the Sangkum as his political paradigms. Sihanouk’s lasting legacy, one can only conclude, has been the system of government Cambodia currently enjoys.