Today marks the 82nd birthday of Queen Mother Norodom Monineath Sihanouk of Cambodia. Julio Jeldres, who served as the senior private secretary and special assistant to the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk for 12 years and has written extensively on the Cambodian royal family, provides insight into the life of Cambodia’s Queen Mother, whom he describes as “a witness of history”
Not a great deal is known about the Queen Mother Norodom Monineath Sihanouk. Could you provide an insight into what an average day is like for her?
Her Majesty the Queen Mother has many duties, [such as] receiving Khmer and foreign persons (heads of state, prime ministers, ambassadors, others) who ask to see Her Majesty. She also takes care of many charitable activities, like the Samdech Euv Team, established by His Late Majesty the King Father to help the less fortunate of their compatriots with the building of hospitals, clinics, schools, fishponds and small houses. She has in recent years raised funds and built two hospitals in Phnom Penh. Her Majesty also participates in many Buddhist ceremonies within the Royal Palace, according to the Buddhist calendar.
During her lifetime, the Queen Mother has seen great changes in the role of the royal family in Cambodia. Do you have an idea of what her views are of royalty in Cambodia? Does she believe it to still be necessary in the modern day?
Her Majesty the Queen Mother is what I would call ‘a witness of history’ as far as contemporary Cambodia is concerned. She has lived through the period when Cambodia was called an ‘oasis of peace’ by some and the ‘Switzerland of Asia’ by others. Her Majesty followed His Late Majesty the King Father during the years of exile in China and North Korea. When the Constituent Assembly in 1993 decided that Cambodia should become a monarchy and invited His Late Majesty the King Father and the Queen Mother to ascend the throne, she dutifully assumed the functions that the peoples’ representatives had.
She keeps close ties with China. Is this due to maintaining political relations?
Not at all. This is not a political relationship but a strong friendship based on mutual respect. Her Majesty the Queen Mother remains deeply grateful for the support and assistance China gave to His Late Majesty the King Father and her during the difficult years after the 1970 coup by General Lon Nol.
How did the Queen Mother cope during the Khmer Rouge regime when she was kept under house arrest? Does she ever speak of this period?
No, she does not speak about this period because it was a terrible time, with many members of the royal family disappearing, never to be seen again. But His Late Majesty the King Father has written in his memoirs that they lived from one day to the other, expecting to be executed the next day. It seems that only the constant attention paid by China to the welfare of Their Majesties saved them from execution but not from house arrest and other humiliations.
She featured in some of her husband King Norodom Sihanouk’s films. Did she have aspirations to be an actress? Do you know if she has any other hobbies?
Not at all! Her Majesty had no aspiration to be an actress, but His Late Majesty the King Father often asked [her] to participate in some of his films. Her Majesty enjoys music and is a very good singer… In addition, Her Majesty contributes funds for the Kantha Bopha Hospital, the Cambodian Red Cross and the Sihanouk Hospital Centre of Hope, since they were established many years ago. She also financially helps other charitable institutions which assist the less fortunate people of Cambodia.
She has lived an incredibly interesting life and achieved many things. What would you say are her greatest achievements?
Her Majesty’s greatest achievement is, in my personal view, to have dutifully followed His Late Majesty the King Father at all times, often difficult times, providing the necessary support and emotional stimulus for His Late Majesty to continue his Herculean work for the people of Cambodia, particularly after 1979.