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Cambodia's political Houdini. Former king is a master at extricating himself from political jams

Prince Norodom Sihanouk is in the United States this week rallying support for the Cambodian resistance movement. Almost all sides of the nation's conflict see him as the only true nationalist capable of reuniting his war-torn nation. IN a jungle clearing, a box of French chocolate bonbons lies on a wobbly bamboo table. Prince Norodom Sihanouk pops one in his mouth. He giggles and looks at his wife, Princess Monique, who cuddles a pet dog, pure white and pure bred.

The former monarch is holding court, only he is in his guerrilla camp, located on the Thai-Cambodia border. Mud and mosquitoes encircle his make-shift hut. His audience is a ragtag army and hundreds of Khmer refugees. They bow in awe at his presence.

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At one point the aging Prince, who traces his ancestry back to the god-kings of the Angkor Wat empire, turns toward a guest: ``After victory, we shall return the name of our country to Cambodia, not Kampuchea,'' he pronounces in a high voice. ``Don't you agree, Mr. Khieu Samphan?''

Khieu Samphan, the nominal leader of the Khmer Rouge and a comrade of the notorious Pol Pot, hesitantly nods agreement. He has little choice. This is ceremony, not only a remnant of a lost monarchy, but a necessary display of unity.

The Khmer Rouge and Prince Sihanouk are in an awkward political alliance known as the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea, which includes a third guerrilla group led by noncommunist leader Son Sann. The three groups forget much of their past hatred of one another for the sake of mutual opposition to Vietnam's decade-long occupation of Cambodia.

At moments like this, the former King is at his best. He exudes pomp and flows with the circumstance. He is, after all, a clever survivor, a political Houdini who has escaped predicaments by artful dodges and surprise moves ever since his coronation at age 19 in 1941.

``His power is in his unpredictability,'' says Kishore Mahbuhani, Singapore's ambassador to the UN.

Sihanouk has not ruled his country for more than 18 years and yet, now, through his pragmatic diplomacy, he is courted by both friend and foe, big countries and small. Last year he was offered a ``high position'' by his chief opponent, Hun Sen, the prime minister of the Hanoi-backed People's Republic of Kampuchea, which rules in the capital of Phnom Penh. The Soviets, who support Hun Sen, keep regular contact with Sihanouk.

Almost all sides in this simmering war see him as the only true nationalist who can reunite his tiny and torn nation in a political settlement. After two decades of violence and four radically different governments, the emotionally scarred Cambodians look back on Sihanouk's long reign as the antebellum good years, when a content and passive people were sheltered by their ``papa.''

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His former royal palace in the heart of Phnom Penh is a grand courtyard that glitters with past glory. There the ``playboy prince,'' as he was known, a lover of French cuisine and political intrigue, once held court for real.

But the palace today is ill kept and largely vacant. The Communist-led regime has not said whether it would let him reside there if he returns.

In the meantime, however, Sihanouk travels back and forth between the world's capitals. This week, he visited President Reagan. Then he is off to the UN, where he holds Cambodia's seat. In early November, he is in Paris for another round of peace talks with Hun Sen. Last month, he called for a big-power summit on Cambodia next year.

His official residences are in China and North Korea. About once a year he visits his ``children,'' as he calls them, at the refugee camps along the Thai border.

``Sihanouk still enjoys today the love of the majority of Cambodians in Cambodia,'' the Prince said in a recent interview, referring to himself indirectly.

Hun Sen says it is legitimate for people to recall the high point under Sihanouk, whom he refers to as Samdech, or His Royal Highness. ``But the dream of wanting to see Sihanouk come back in order to see the same prosperity - that would be an illusion.

``Sihanouk is not a magician who can produce anything because he says so,'' Hun Sen adds. Nonetheless, inviting Sihanouk back was ``a necessity and a political solution.''

Many in the Hun Sen regime believe Sihanouk has lost much of his popularity, not only because of his long absence but for his ties to the Khmer Rouge. ``People think less of Sihanouk. They weigh him against Hun Sen,'' says Press Samoeur, governor of Kompang Cham Province. ``Now they think Hun Sen is more loyal to the people, although the old people still respect Sihanouk.''

Communists like Hun Sen have dogged Sihanouk ever since 1951, when they formed a party under the tutelage of Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh. To fight them off, the young King launched a crusade in 1953 for independence from France. His quick victory heightened his popularity as the father of modern Cambodia, a reputation that overlaps with a lingering belief in divine kingship.

Independence, however, was not enough. A 1954 big-power agreement on Indochina split Vietnam in half, while leaving Cambodia neutral under Sihanouk. That bought him time, but the communist threat only grew. The pragmatic King abdicated in 1955 to head a republican government with elections. By 1959, Sihanouk began to repress the communists, whom he tagged as the Khmer Rouge, or Red Cambodians.

As the Vietnam war tumbled over into Cambodia in the late 1960s, Sihanouk's ability at political balance and neutrality failed him. A rightist coup in 1970 ousted him while he was on a trip to China.

The coup forced Sihanouk to make an important choice that has been his political trap ever since: He sided with the Khmer Rouge, serving as their figurehead even after they took power in 1975. They put him under house detention, and caused the death of hundreds of thousands of Cambodians, including 15 of Sihanouk's children and grandchildren. Snared physically and politically, Sihanouk was not a free man until late 1978, when Soviet-backed Vietnam invaded Cambodia and ousted the Khmer Rouge.

He fled along with the Khmer Rouge but denounced their atrocities. With his country under a foreign power, however, he eventually had to form a new tactical alliance. The Khmer Rouge were the only force strong enough to fight the Vietnamese.

In essence, Sihanouk has been caught in the split between China and the Soviet Union, represented by the Khmer Rouge and Hun Sen, respectively.

In the past two years, Sihanouk has stepped up political moves, partly due to his desire to return home before he dies, and because of Vietnam's promise to withdraw by 1990. He has lately promoted his son, Prince Norodom Ranaridh, who commands the estimated 12,000-man Army. The son represented his father at talks in July on Cambodia in Indonesia. But few analysts expect Prince Ranaridh to ever fill his father's shoes. He carries little of his father's charisma.

``Only Sihanouk can be Sihanouk,'' an American official says.

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