A Cambodian woman prays in tears in front of the main gate of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to mourn the death of former King Norodom Sihanouk Monday, Oct. 15, 2012. Sihanouk, the revered former king who was a towering figure in Cambodian politics through a half-century of war, genocide and upheaval, died Monday. He was 89. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)
Updated: November 17, 2012 6:23AM
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — He was many things to the Cambodia he helped navigate through half a century of war and genocide — revered independence hero, ruthless monarch and prime minister, communist collaborator, eccentric playboy, avid filmmaker.
Most of all, perhaps, Cambodia’s former King Norodom Sihanouk was a cunning political survivor who reinvented himself repeatedly throughout his often flamboyant life.
On Monday, at 89, Mr. Sihanouk died of a heart attack in Beijing, where he had been receiving medical treatment since January for a variety of ailments.
First crowned king by the French in 1941 at the age of 18, Mr. Sihanouk saw his Southeast Asian nation transformed from colony to kingdom, from U.S.-backed regime to U.S. bombing zone, from Khmer Rouge killing field to what it remains today — a fragile experiment in democracy.
He ruled as a feudal-style absolute monarch, but called himself a democrat. He was a man who sang love songs at elaborate state dinners, brought his French poodle to peace talks and charmed foreign dignitaries such as Jacqueline Kennedy.
He also painted, fielded a palace soccer team, composed music and led his own jazz band. His appetite extended to fast cars, food and women. He married at least five times — some say six — and fathered 14 children.
When the murderous Khmer Rouge seized power in the 1970s, he was reviled as their collaborator. Yet he himself ended up as their prisoner and lost five of his children to the regime. Later, in the 1990s — after a U.N.-brokered deal to end Cambodia’s long civil war — he recast himself as a peacemaker and constitutional monarch.