Home > Cambodia King, Local News > Cambodia’s king seen as a ‘prisoner’ in his palace

Cambodia’s king seen as a ‘prisoner’ in his palace

PENH, Cambodia (AP) –As the sun sets and the last tourist departs his vast, fairy-tale
palace, the gentle, dignified man is left almost alone with memories of
happier times, before he became the reluctant king of Cambodia — and
perhaps its last.
In this May 21, 2011 photo, Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihamoni greets
wellwishers during an annual royal plowing ceremony in Phnom Penh,
Cambodia. The king may be heir to a royal line trailing back some 2,000
years, but he always seemed more suited to the arts scene in Europe,
than the rough and tumble politics of his homeland. Now, close aides and
experts say, he has become figuratively, and more, a prisoner in his
own palace. Heng Sinith / AP
King Norodom Sihamoni may be heir to a royal line trailing back some
2,000 years, but he always seemed more suited to the arts scene in
Europe, where he was a ballet dancer, than the rough and tumble politics
of his homeland. Now, close aides and experts say, he has become
figuratively, and more, a prisoner in his own palace.
The chief warden: Prime Minister Hun Sen, who rose from a poor rural
background to become a brilliant and crafty, some say ruthless,
politician.
Hun Sen consolidated power in a 1997 coup as Cambodia slowly emerged
from being dragged into the Vietnam War and its own civil war. While the
country is nominally democratic, he uses all the machinery of
government to lock up critics and ensure his re-election. Human rights
groups allege that he and his business friends are enriching themselves,
while most of the population remains mired in poverty.
His control extends over the palace. The king is surrounded by the
government’s watchdogs, overseen by Minister of Royal Affairs Kong Som
Ol, an official close to Hun Sen. Sihamoni is closely chaperoned on his
few trips outside palace walls, with the media kept away. Although the
constitution endows him with considerable powers, these have never been
granted.
“I think we can use the words ‘puppet king.’ His power has been
reduced to nothing,” says Son Chhay, an opposition member of Parliament
and one of the government’s few outspoken critics. “The king must please
the prime minister as much as possible in order to survive. It is sad
to see.”
It wasn’t always so. Sihamoni’s flamboyant and charismatic father,
Norodom Sihanouk, bestrode the country like a colossus for decades. Many
regarded him as a god-king, and thousands flocked to the plaza fronting
the Royal Palace for fireworks and other lavish celebrations on his
birthday.
Sihanouk abruptly abdicated in 2004 following confrontations with Hun
Sen. Son Chhay and others say Sihamoni accepted the crown under
pressure from parents hoping to ensure the survival of the monarchy.
Seven years later, “sad, lonely, abandoned” are words sympathetic
Cambodians often use when describing Sihamoni. The 58-year-old monarch
spends much of each day signing documents, receiving guests and handling
other routine business, then retires mostly to dine alone and read,
says Prince Sisowath Thomico, Sihanouk’s private secretary and an
adviser to his son.
Unlike his father, who had six wives and numerous lovers, Sihamoni is a lifelong bachelor and unlikely to leave an heir.
His birthday passed recently with little notice. Within the palace’s
crenelated walls, among the graceful pavilions and gilt spires, there
was no sign of activity. Outside, knots of people went about their
normal evening pastimes at the grassy, riverfront square, feeding
pigeons, lounging on reed mats and snacking on lotus seeds and noodles.
“The king is a good, gentle man, a symbol of Cambodia. But he has one
problem: no power. He only stays inside the palace. On television the
leaders bow down before him but behind his back there is no respect,”
said Sin Chhay, a young civil servant at the plaza. “You could say that
Hun Sen is the real king of Cambodia.”
Information Minister Khieu Kanharith insists the king is involved in
social and religious affairs and judicial reviews, receives a monthly
report from Hun Sen on government activities and makes recommendations
on them.
“The current King Sihamoni has played an important role in restoring
the … monarchy. As a king and symbol of national unity he maintains
strict neutrality and doesn’t become involved in any political
activities,” he said. “To say that he’s a prisoner in the palace would
be inappropriate.”
Sihamoni, a former ballet dancer and cultural ambassador, spent 25
years in Czechoslovakia and France. That European past, Western
diplomats say, is his great escape.
He returns regularly to what is now the Czech Republic, calling it “my
second homeland,” and has said his time in Prague “belongs to the
happiest in my life.” Fluent in the language — which reportedly vexes
his keepers trying to eavesdrop on conversations with Czech visitors —
he avidly reads Czech theater reviews and savors DVDs of ballets and
operas.

He
keeps in close touch with the family that cared for him after he
arrived in the Czech capital at age 9. Thirteen years later, he
graduated from Prague’s Academy of Musical Art.

Shortly after, he joined his parents, who were being kept under
virtual house arrest within the palace by the brutal Khmer Rouge
government, which came to power after defeating a U.S.-backed government
in 1975. Sihamoni worked in the palace gardens and cleaned out the
throne hall.

An estimated 1.7 million people died during the Khmer Rouge reign of
terror, including more than a dozen of Sihanouk’s children and
relatives.

Three decades later, the country is still coming to terms with that
period. A U.N.-assisted tribunal is trying a handful of the surviving
leaders of the Khmer Rouge, but the trials have been plagued by long
delays and corruption allegations.

Sihamoni has had only ceremonial involvement with the tribunal. Any
deeper association would irritate both Hun Sen and Sihanouk, who for a
time allied himself with the Khmer Rouge but has also supported the
trials.

After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, Sihanouk went to Paris, from where
he backed resistance against a Vietnamese-installed government that
replaced it.

Sihamoni also went to the French capital and stayed on even after his
father was restored as king in 1993. He taught, performed and
choreographed classical Cambodian dance as well as Western ballet and
served as ambassador to the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural
Organization.

He gave up this much-cherished life to become king in 2004.

The king’s high privy councilor, Son Soubert, who is aligned with one
of the two small opposition parties with parliamentary seats, says the
government has blocked passage of two constitutional provisions: the
formation of a potentially powerful Supreme Council of National Defense
headed by the king, and an annual National Congress that would continue
the tradition of citizens appealing directly to the monarch.

Commenting on the congress, the information minister said that in
today’s Cambodia such a meeting would be a mess and powerless to
override any decisions made by an elected National Assembly.

Some question just how much power Sihamoni wants to wield or is capable of exercising.

“If he were to try to take a political role I have no doubt Hun Sen
would act to diminish him and the monarchy generally almost immediately.
Which is why he is effectively a prisoner in the palace,” says Milton
Osborne, an Australian historian and author of a Sihanouk biography. “He
could very well be the last king of Cambodia.”

Prince Sisowath Thomico, the adviser, insists there is no animosity
between king and prime minister and says Cambodia’s monarchy has merely
entered a new stage, shedding its political role.

“The king now serves as a guardian of the past, of tradition, the
moral character of Cambodia and points the way ahead for future
generations,” he says. “We leave the present to the government.”

By most accounts, Sihamoni is still largely respected, especially in
the countryside. He is probably considered less relevant in urban areas,
especially among an extremely young population — the median age is
about 23 — that was not around during Sihanouk’s heyday, before violence
engulfed the country.

Prince Norodom Ranarridh, who heads a pro-monarchy party, believes
Cambodians are “still royalists at heart” and holds a nuanced view of
his half brother.

The king doesn’t exercise his prerogatives under the constitution to
avoid jeopardizing an institution he regards as more important than
himself, Ranarridh said. At the same time, Sihamoni’s personality is
unassertive, so he falls comfortably into the role of doing the minimum.

“So both the king and prime minister are very happy with the
situation. It is some kind of a gentlemen’s agreement,” the prince says,
laughing.

But he adds: “I don’t think my brother is very happy. He would like to be somewhere else.”

___

Associated Press writer Grant Peck in Bangkok contributed to this story.

Categories: Cambodia King, Local News
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