How does a palace-pampered princess pirouette into the role of a fierce challenger to her government on issues of democratic rights and legislative prerogatives?
After living in exile for three decades, Princess Norodom Vacheahra, 56, has returned to Cambodia and is emerging as the most outspoken royal with her criticism of the government. As head of the foreign relations committee in parliament, she is taking on the prime minister, Hun Sen, on government corruption, illegal logging and exports, border issues and the recent political turmoil gripping the country, including a killing.
“In Cambodia, we are just a semblance of democracy. We have a rubber-stamp parliament,” she said, adding that she summoned the prime minister to answer questions about the political tumult, but he declined to show. “I am in direct confrontation with the prime minister. I just wanted to show him that people are willing to stand up to him . . . that things were no longer as they were,” she said yesterday at the offices of the International Republican Institute.
Tim Johnson of the institute staff said: “It takes chutzpah to go after Hun Sen in that way. . . . For someone serving as part of the coalition parties, this is a bold maneuver.
The daughter of the late king, Norodom Suramarit, and half-sister of the current king, Norodom Sihanouk, Vacheahra said she has been insulted and threatened since she returned home. The prime minister has filed a lawsuit against her, charging her with defamation and inciting public turmoil, among other allegations. The suit threatens to strip her of immunity from prosecution and the ability to run in parliamentary elections in July.
Vacheahra was born to Suramarit’s second wife, a beautiful palace dancer who did not come “from blue blood, but red blood, from the people,” she said. Her recollection of palace life is a swirl of servants, chauffeurs and guards restricting her freedom. She began training as a dancer at age 5 and took part in classical Cambodian dance recitals. At 16, she traveled to the south of France. At the University of Toulouse, she obtained degrees in education, international studies, development and political science.
When the communist Khmer Rouge guerrillas took over Cambodia in 1975, Sihanouk, who had been overthrown in 1970, returned from exile. He was placed under house arrest in his palace the following year, however, and fled to Beijing in 1979. But it was a long time before Vacheahra received news about him.
Vacheahra said she did not miss the luxuries of palace life, but she missed her family and friends, many of whom were killed during the Khmer Rouge years. She longed for the Cambodia of the 1960s, when the country was “a paradise” and in its golden age when, she said, Cambodians were always “smiling and hospitable.” Until 1970, she said, “no one knew what war was, no one had ever gone hungry.”
Vacheahra’s mother moved to France in 1972, and they both lived in Paris. Vacheahra taught herself to type and learned shorthand. She put aside her interests and took a job at a logging company as an administrative assistant. “We had lost everything” in Cambodia, she said, “and we had no money. I had to work very hard to survive.”
By 1976, the Khmer Rouge had eliminated many traces of Cambodian culture and traditions.
“We felt we had no identity anymore, so four friends and I decided to set up our own dancing troupe, Ballet Classique Khmer,” she said. She bought velvet fabrics and, after work, would stay up late decorating costumes with golden, red, yellow and green sequins.
When the troupe performed for the first time, at the Hotel Meridien in Paris, the hall was packed with 800 people, mostly Cambodians, and older members of the audience were so moved they cried, she said. “We had reaffirmed our identity.”
The troupe grew and toured France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Ivory Coast, and some members performed in the United States. Part of the proceeds from ticket sales were dedicated to helping Cambodian refugees living in camps in Thailand.
In 1983, Vacheahra married a Frenchman, the director general of a champagne company in Reims. By then, many Cambodians dispersed by the war had started filtering back to rebuild their country, including one of her brothers, who returned in 1984.
Vacheahra’s mother wanted her to stay out of politics, and she respected that wish until her mother died in 1995. Vacheahra finally went home in 1997 and entered politics. Her husband gave her his full support and money for her campaign, she said.
“Now we are on the eve of elections and there are threats to democracy, our party and other opposition parties, journalists, and the head of a radio station has been put in jail,” she said after meetings at the State Department yesterday.
During a visit to Phnom Penh, Matthew Daley, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, expressed concern about the violence and intimidation in Cambodia, warning recently that it was time for the government “to end the corrosive culture of impunity.”
Vacheahra said: “If well managed and led by decent men who respect transparency and the rule of law, in just a few years Cambodia will no longer ask donors for millions of dollars. It has human and natural resources, but now we are breathing through other people’s noses. We have our own.”Top