[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Thursday, 14 October, 2004, 10:48 GMT 11:48 UK
Profile: Norodom Sihanouk
King Norodom Sihanouk and Queen Monineath greet from a limousine after a ceremony celebrating Cambodia's fifty years of Independence in Phnom Penh , 2003
The former king is revered by the Cambodian people
Norodom Sihanouk's abdication announcement is not the first time the enigmatic Cambodian has caught his nation by surprise.

In fact his personal history has been almost as turbulent as that of his country.

At the forefront of Cambodian politics for half a century - through the Vietnam war and the bloody years of the Khmer Rouge - Sihanouk was repeatedly backed different regimes and been exiled from the country, only to return to a rapturous welcome from his long-suffering people.

For the last few months, the 81-year-old former monarch has been abroad again, in self-imposed exile, apparently frustrated by the interminable infighting of Cambodian politicians.

Now frail and ill, Sihanouk may have lost much of his political clout, but he has not lost the support of his people, who continue to festoon their streets and houses with pictures of their king.

Flamboyant leader

Norodom Sihanouk was born in Phnom Penh on 31 October 1922, as the son of King Norodom Suramarit.

Cambodia was then under French colonial rule, and when Sihanouk was 18 the French decided to crown him king to succeed his grandfather Monivong, imagining the teenager would be a compliant ruler.

I categorically refuse to return to the throne no matter what the turn of events
Norodom Sihanouk, 1955
They were soon proved wrong. The new king quickly became a nationalist leader, going on to win full independence from France in 1953.

Two years later, Sihanouk abdicated to pursue a political career, with his father taking over as monarch.

Sihanouk soon became well-known for his extravagant lifestyle.

An unashamed ladies' man, he finally chose to stay with his sixth wife Monique, an Italian-Cambodian he married in 1952.

Fluent in three languages - Khmer, French and English - he developed a taste for the high life, dabbling in amateur film-making, leading a jazz band and editing magazines.

But he also turned into an autocrat, who could not tolerate criticism or dissent.

Initially neutral in foreign affairs, he broke diplomatic relations with the United States in 1965 when Cambodians were killed in the Vietnam war.

Sihanouk told the BBC at the time that the tragedy happened "because of US imperialism".

While on a foreign assignment in Russia in 1970, Sihanouk was abruptly exiled as the fighting between American and North Vietnamese forces spilled over into Cambodia.

Tourists standing behind a display of Khmer Rouge victim pictures in Phnom Penh (archive picture)
More than 1m people died under Khmer Rouge rule
Prime Minister Lon Nol took over, and Sihanouk was forced into exile in China, where he formed a guerrilla movement allied to the communist Khmer Rouge - an ultra-Maoist group led by Saloth Sar, who later changed his name to Pol Pot.

The Khmer Rouge started to take control of more and more territory in the north of Cambodia, and Sihanouk was even photographed posing with a group of rebels in the "liberated zone" in 1973.

But he was soon to regret his pact with the Khmer Rouge.

They drove out Lon Nol in 1975, and gained control of the whole of Cambodia, creating a genocidal regime that resulted in the deaths of more than a million people.

Sihanouk was allowed back into the country and technically remained head of state, but spent the majority of the Khmer Rouge's four-year rule under house arrest in the royal palace in Phnom Penh.

Even the king did not escape tragedy during the genocide: five of his 14 children died as victims of Pol Pot's harsh regime.

When the Vietnamese invaded and installed their own puppet government in 1979, Sihanouk again found himself again in exile.

He formed another uneasy coalition with the Khmer Rouge, who fought alongside the royalists against a Vietnam-backed government led by Hun Sen.

Return to the throne

After years of frustrated negotiations, a UN-brokered peace deal was finally agreed in 1991.

Sihanouk returned to Cambodia and was later re-crowned king, although his role remained largely symbolic, and he said he wanted to reign not rule.

Prince Ranariddh
Sihanouk's son Ranariddh is now a prominent politician
In the general election in 1993, the royalist Funcinpec Party - headed by Sihanouk's son Prince Norodom Ranariddh - won the most seats.

But Hun Sen refused to cede power and a ruling partnership was agreed between him and Prince Ranariddh. In subsequent years the two men have remained at the forefront of Cambodia's politics, often as bitter rivals.

Sihanouk largely stuck to his role as figurehead, although in recent years he has become increasingly frustrated by the endless political wrangling.

He has spent much of his time abroad, in China and North Korea, where he is a friend of the secretive leader and fellow film buff Kim Jong-il.

His people have stayed true to him throughout coups, wars, regime changes and famine - even a full-scale genocide - and he has been the one stable influence in their otherwise turbulent lives.

Cambodia's king 'abdicates'
07 Oct 04 |  Asia-Pacific
Cambodian king backs gay marriage
20 Feb 04 |  Asia-Pacific
Cambodia king takes crisis online
12 Jan 04 |  Asia-Pacific
Profile: Prince Norodom Ranariddh
25 Jul 03 |  Asia-Pacific
Long wait for Killing Fields justice
05 Oct 04 |  Asia-Pacific
Khmer Rouge's legacy of fear
24 May 03 |  Asia-Pacific

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia
UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health
Have Your Say | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific