When the 1954 Geneva Conference formally granted Cambodian independence and called for free elections, Sihanouk abdicated the throne the next year in favor of his father. Sihanouk subsequently won a referendum and became prime minister in March 1955. Immensely popular among the peasantry, he strongly championed neutrality as the war in Vietnam escalated. Following his father's death in 1960, Sihanouk was again named head of state but was not granted the title of king. Alternately taking sides with the People's Republic of China (PRC) and the United States, he tried to prevent the war in the neighboring Republic of Vietnam (RVN, South Vietnam) from spilling over into his country, but he was largely unsuccessful as Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV, North Vietnam) forces transited through Cambodia into South Vietnam, and they and the Viet Cong used eastern Cambodia as a sanctuary.
Frustrated in his efforts to keep Cambodia neutral, in 1968 Sihanouk restored relations with the United States and in 1970 secretly agreed to permit the Americans to bomb communist sanctuaries. At the same time, he attempted to block the growing influence of the communist Khmer Rouge.
While out of the country in March 1970, Sihanouk was ousted by a coup led by General Lon Nol. Sihanouk fled to Beijing, where he lived in exile. Following the 1975 Khmer Rouge takeover, he returned to Cambodia and became the symbolic head of state, while dictator Pol Pot remained the power behind the throne. In 1976 Sihanouk was placed under house arrest, but he escaped to China in 1978 when the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia. He unsuccessfully attempted to forge an alliance with the Khmer Rouge and others to oppose the new Vietnamese-imposed Cambodian regime. When Vietnam withdrew in 1989 and a peace treaty sponsored by the United Nations (UN) went into effect in 1991, he returned to Cambodia, where he was reinstated as king and Cambodian president, although his political power was limited. Sihanouk abdicated in October 2004 in favor of his son, Norodom Sihamoni.
Arne Kislenko and James H. Willbanks
Kamm, Henry. Cambodia: Report from a Stricken Land. New York: Arcade, 1998.; Osborne, Milton. Sihanouk: Prince of Light, Prince of Darkness. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994.