In Asean, if the Philippines is considered the traditional spokesman for America, Cambodia is considered the spokesman for China.
Cambodia and China’s is a longstanding relationship, dating back to Norodom Sihanouk meeting Zhou Enlai in Bandung, Indonesia in April 1955. The warmth between Cambodia and China was viewed with concern by countries like the Philippines which were on the other side of the Cold War.
In late January to early February 1956, Sihanouk, then prime minister of Cambodia (he was king from 1941 to 1955 and, afterwards, head of state from 1960 to 1970 and from 1975 to 1976, then king once more from 1993 until his death), visited the Philippines. He would recount in his memoirs that “President Magsaysay invited me to a farewell dinner to which he had also asked the director of the National Library. After the meal was over, he asked the director to produce famous historical documents which showed that during the 17th century, when an ancestor of mine was about to lose his throne, he was saved by Filipino mercenary troops. ‘You see,’ said Magsaysay, ‘we did not remain neutral when your throne was imperiled. We will soon all be in danger of Chinese aggression—but you want to remain neutral’.
“‘Mr. President,’ I replied, ‘if ever the day comes that your independence is threatened, we will not remain neutral. The Cambodian people, the Cambodian government, and I, personally, would not remain neutral. We will repay our debt if you become the victim of aggression, and this applies also to communist aggression’.”
He then added, “My departure from Manila was in marked contrast to my arrival. The US Ambassador was absent from the frigid airport leaving ceremony… (Subsequent) Public disclosure of the scandalous events in Manila had their consequences. Vice President Garcia complained rather picturesquely that I had not even shown ‘gut gratitude’ for I had eaten Philippine food, then had ‘bitten the hand that fed me’.” Sihanouk pointedly observed, “The sight of a nation which had fallen so completely under the domination of a foreign power strengthened me in my resolve to defend Cambodian independence to the end.”
A little later in his memoirs, Sihanouk narrated, “In an ironic turn of fortune’s wheel, in early 1964—eight years after the events described—the then President of the Philippines, Macapagal, asked whether, in view of my good relations with President Soekarno of Indonesia, I could play some role in easing tensions between Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. It was the time of Soekarno’s ‘confrontation policy’ with Malaysia. The Philippines also had territorial claims on Malaysia. I invited Tengku Abdul Rahman of Malaysia and President Macapagal to Cambodia. First of all we met at Angkor—the calm of which I have found useful for cooling tempers—later to Phnom Penh, where I arranged a tremendous reception for the President of the Philippines—a hundred thousand people lining the streets from the airport.”
Sihanouk continued, “The next step was for me to visit Kuala Lumpur, Djakarta, and Manila. No welcoming crowds at the Manila airport—just President Macapagal and his wife, bravely clapping as I stepped down the gangway. He had arranged for schoolchildren to line the streets with Cambodian flags. But seemingly unbeknown to the President, National Assembly (i.e. Congress) deputies had sent out trucks to pick up the children: ‘Go home!’ they were told. ‘Don’t wave those Cambodian flags!’ So I was met with banners reading: ‘Sihanouk slandered us in 1956,’ ‘Sabotage his visit,’ ‘Sihanouk — enemy of The Philippine People!’ We drove through empty streets.”
Sihanouk, writing as an ex-king in Beijing exile at the time, closed with this reflection: “It was one of the worst moments of my life—worse even than being deposed, because then I knew that I had my people with me and that we would fight back and win. But to be humiliated in this way in a so-called friendship visit was galling to the extreme, and further embittered me towards the US and its satellites.”
So he became a Chinese one, serving as head of state while the Khmer Rouge engaged in mass murder, until he and they were ousted by Vietnam. He lived long enough to return to be king of a nation committed to alliance with China, with a prime minister, Hun Sen, who was former Khmer Rouge.
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