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COLUMN ONE : The Royal Puzzle in Cambodia : He makes movies that star himself and insists that diplomats sing to him. Mercurial Prince Sihanouk is as much a question mark as the future of his country.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Prince Norodom Sihanouk is crazy about movies. For decades, as Cambodia has been buffeted by the storms of history, the portly prince has enjoyed making epic dramas for which he is screenwriter, director and star.

So when Sihanouk invited a group of diplomats to his restored royal palace recently for an evening of Cambodian entertainment, the envoys braced themselves for a long night. As the lights dimmed, jaws dropped when Sihanouk began screening a film about one of his heroes, Kim Il Sung, the tyrant of North Korea.

“It was nauseating,” said one diplomat who was present. “Here the United Nations is spending $2 billion to return Cambodia to democracy and Sihanouk sucks up to a dictator. What future has Cambodia got?”

It’s a question being asked with increasing frequency these days, as people take stock of Sihanouk’s offbeat behavior. The 70-year-old prince’s well-deserved reputation for being “mercurial” is contributing to an atmosphere of uncertainty as an internationally brokered peace agreement to end Cambodia’s long war seems increasingly wobbly.

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Earlier this year, Sihanouk demanded that the United Nations rewrite its 1991 peace plan to allow him to be chosen president, in addition to the planned election for a national assembly. The world body sheepishly agreed, but Sihanouk then changed his mind and peevishly said he no longer wanted to be a candidate. He told a group of French reporters last month that he would consider a movement to make him king.

“The prince is a man whose political record suggests a greater facility for reigning than for ruling,” Michael Leifer, an Asian specialist at the London School of Economics, wrote recently. “He is more at home with the pomp and circumstance of government than with its good practice. His neglect of the latter when in power is part of the tragedy of modern Cambodia.”

Sihanouk has been on the world stage since the French made him king of Cambodia in 1941. That makes him one of the world’s longest surviving leaders. Millions of rural Cambodians still regard him as literally a god figure and count on him to return their war-racked country magically to peace. Even more practical Cambodians are hoping he will prove an island of stability, the only leader with the experience and statesmanship to hold together a fragile government.

But, with his chipmunk jowls and soprano barks in French and English, Sihanouk often seems more at home on an opera set than a political arena. By turns charming, funny and gracious, he can also appear depressed, sulky and vindictive.

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When Sam Ransy, a member of Sihanouk’s own political party, asked the prince about his presidential ambitions during a public meeting in Beijing in January, Sihanouk turned on him and launched into a half-hour tirade, according to diplomats who were present. He even insulted Ransy’s wife until she fled the gathering in tears.

At another key political conference, Sihanouk inexplicably flew into a tantrum after learning that ancient Cambodian art objects from Angkor Wat had been sent on a goodwill tour of Asian museums. He insisted that the tour be canceled, deeply embarrassing the Japanese government, Cambodia’s largest aid donor, which had planned a big exhibition.

No one is spared Sihanouk’s fits of anger, not even his children. In an interview published last month in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Sihanouk chastised one son, Prince Ranariddh, who stands a good chance of becoming prime minister after the elections in May, for appearing to overshadow his father.

“One should not sell the skin of the bear before killing it,” Sihanouk remarked huffily.

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“Sihanouk seems unwilling to work with any rival, including his own children,” one Western diplomat said.

Anger is not his only weapon. During a birthday celebration at the palace a few months ago, Sihanouk grabbed a microphone and imitated the French singer Edith Piaf until 3 a.m. Then, with a puckish sense of humor, Sihanouk went down on his knees and sang “My Way,” dedicating it to Yasushi Akashi, head of the U.N. Transitional Authority in Cambodia, with whom he had been feuding.

“He’s like Nero fiddling while Rome burns; you never know what to expect,” one diplomat said gloomily. “It’s as if he feels Cambodia is really one of his silly movies and Sihanouk is the director and star.”

An avid amateur filmmaker since the 1960s, Sihanouk uses his family and royal retainers to act in the endless love stories and mysteries that are required viewing in the Sihanouk household. Sihanouk not only stars, directs and provides the scripts, but usually adds a quirky, improvised narration as well.

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“It is like Shakespeare, n’est-ce pas ?” he asked after one recent screening.

Music is another great pleasure in Sihanouk’s life, and like President Clinton, the prince is a lover of the saxophone. During the drawn-out Cambodian peace process, months were spent arguing about a new national anthem that Sihanouk had personally scored. At one round of negotiations, Sihanouk decreed without warning that all of the diplomats present had to sing him a song. A deeply embarrassed Richard H. Solomon, then assistant secretary of state, had to croak “Happy Birthday” off-key to the prince.

Sihanouk, who is nominally Cambodia’s head of state at its current moment of crisis, has spent three of the last four months out of Cambodia, purportedly recovering from a mild stroke at his home-in-exile in Beijing. But he has Chinese doctors in Phnom Penh, and to many observers his absence seemed politically as well as medically inspired. As if to prove the point, the prince recovered two days before the visit to Cambodia by French President Francois Mitterrand.

Still, say palace aides, the doctors have ordered Sihanouk to cut back on his consumption of champagne and caviar.

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“I think Sihanouk has basically outlived his welcome,” said David P. Chandler, an American historian who specializes on Cambodia. “His only objective is to stay in power. There is no question of whether he reflects popular views. It’s just a matter of ‘What do I do today to stay in power or regain power?’ He’s like the accordionist who plays all the notes at once.”

Although he is surrounded by obsequious officials, Sihanouk is apparently without any close friends or trusted advisers, apart from his wife, Monique. Palace officials say Monique, the daughter of an Italian businessman and a Cambodian mother, is the gray eminence in Sihanouk’s life. She decides who will gain admittance to his court. According to palace insiders, she shuns Prince Norodom Ranariddh, Sihanouk’s son by an earlier marriage and the leader of his political party, because he refuses to call her “Mama” in public.

One indication of Monique’s power is that Cambodia International Airlines was ordered grounded for a week recently as punishment for making her walk around one of its airplanes at the airport to reach her own flight.

To both critics and supporters alike, Sihanouk is respected as the ultimate political survivor. He gave up being king in 1955, putting his father on the throne and retaining the title prince, so that he could enter the political fray. For the next 15 years, he ruled Cambodia as an autocrat, crushing the only significant opposition party and closing down newspapers that dared to oppose him. But he also managed to keep the Vietnam War from spilling over into his country until after he was overthrown.

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Sihanouk was ousted in a 1970 coup led by his defense minister, Lon Nol, while the prince was on a visit to Moscow. During peace negotiations in 1991, Sihanouk stunned diplomats by launching into a two-hour diatribe accusing the United States of masterminding the coup. Two decades later, it is an event that still evidently wounds him deeply.

Sihanouk returned to Phnom Penh when the murderous Khmer Rouge headed by Pol Pot took power in 1975, but he ended up a virtual prisoner in his own palace. It was only through the personal intercession of Chinese Premier Chou En-lai that Sihanouk escaped execution by the Khmer Rouge, who had killed five of his children.

In a visit to the United Nations in New York with Khmer Rouge officials, Sihanouk recalled, he tried to pass a message appealing for help to an FBI agent in a New York elevator. The agent, mistakenly thinking that he was being tipped, wouldn’t take the note.

During his exile, Sihanouk divided his time between homes in Beijing and Pyongyang. The Chinese, knowing Sihanouk’s weaknesses, indulged him by providing him with eight chefs and a yearly stipend of $300,000, according to Sihanouk. The allowance continues to this day. Similarly, the North Koreans provide Sihanouk with an army of bodyguards and apparently unlimited use of facilities to indulge his love of filmmaking. He also travels on a North Korean jet.

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Sihanouk’s return to Phnom Penh in November, 1991, after his long exile was a triumph. The government in Phnom Penh, anxious to forge a political alliance with Sihanouk, turned out throngs of schoolchildren chanting “Samdech Euv,” meaning “Prince Father.”

Sihanouk has long had a godlike attraction for many Cambodians, particularly those from rural areas. That reverent attitude for national leaders dates back to the 14th Century rulers of Khmer civilization at Angkor Wat. In turn, he refers to Cambodians as his children, and himself--often in the third person--as the father of the country.

“What I want is not to become king again,” Sihanouk told the welcoming throng. “In my opinion, the greatest honor, the greatest reward that the nation, that history can offer me is to be the father of the nation, the father of independence, the father of peace, the father of national reconciliation and national reunion and the father of true democracy and genuine freedom. I am not at all seeking a reward in being crowned. The crown is very heavy, you know. It hurts your head.”

Sihanouk even apologized for being so autocratic in the old days, telling reporters he now understands the need for a free press. He still pores over press accounts of his activities and the royal palace publishes a bulletin of correspondence and clippings each month with Sihanouk’s comments noted in the margins in the neat handwriting he learned as a student in a French lycee in Saigon. “Une situation catastrophique,” the prince wrote in French next to a clipping about Cambodia’s fishing industry.

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Many diplomats thought Sihanouk might have mellowed during his long period in exile. But those hopes were short-lived. Officially, he returned as the chairman of the Supreme National Council, a four-party committee created by the peace talks to represent Cambodia’s sovereignty, whatever that meant. As chairman, he was meant to play the neutral father-figure, with such ceremonial powers as receiving ambassadors. But it soon became clear that Sihanouk wanted real power.

Almost from the start, he violated his pledge of neutrality. Famed for his inability to keep a secret, Sihanouk told his first news conference in Phnom Penh that his own political party had forged a secret alliance with the government in Phnom Penh and that the two parties planned to form a coalition government after the elections to be held in May, 1993. The disclosure deeply embarrassed both parties and angered the Khmer Rouge, which realized that it was being shut out of power.

“Sihanouk’s political philosophy seems to boil down to divide and rule,” said one U.N. official who asked not to be named.

“It became pretty clear that despite all the nice promises to the contrary, Sihanouk wanted to turn the clock back to the 1960s, when he ruled like an autocrat,” a Western diplomat said. “Sihanouk has always wanted power.”

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