Home > Cambodia King, Local News > Cambodian king dances to PM’s tune

Cambodian king dances to PM’s tune

By Denis D.Gray

King Norodom Sihamoni, a former ballet dancer, is a prisoner in his own palace as Prime Minister Hun Sen controls the former’s powers, writes DENIS D. GRAY.
King Norodom Sihamoni (left) and Prime Minister Hun Sen applaud the gentleman’s agreement between them. — AP picture  

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.

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. He consolidated power in a 1997 coup as Cambodia slowly emerged from being dragged into the Vietnam War and its own civil war.

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,” said Son Chhay, an opposition member of parliament and one of the government’s few outspoken critics.

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 spent much of each day signing documents, receiving guests and handling other routine business, then retired mostly to dine alone and read, said 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 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.

Sin Chhay, a young civil servant at the plaza, said: “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.”

Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said the king was involved in social and religious affairs and judicial reviews, received a monthly report from Hun Sen on government activities and made recommendations on them.

“As a king and symbol of national unity, he maintains strict neutrality and doesn’t become involved in any political activities. To say that he’s a prisoner in the palace would be inappropriate.”

Sihamoni spent 25 years in Czechoslovakia and France.

After the fall of the brutal 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 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.

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

The king’s high privy councillor, Son Soubert, who is aligned with one of the two small opposition parties with parliamentary seats, said the government had blocked passage of two constitutional provisions: the formation of a potentially powerful Supreme Council of National Defence 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, Khieu Kanharith 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 wanted to wield or was capable of exercising.

Milton Osborne, an Australian historian and author of a Sihanouk biography, said: “If he were to try to take a political role, I have no doubt Hun Sen would diminish him and the monarchy almost immediately. Which is why he is effectively a prisoner in the palace.

“He could very well be the last king of Cambodia.”

Prince Sisowath Thomico, the adviser, said there was no animosity between king and prime minister and said Cambodia’s monarchy had 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 generation. 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, said Cambodians were “still royalists at heart” and held a nuanced view of his half brother.

The king didn’t exercise his prerogatives under the constitution to avoid jeopardising an institution he regarded 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 said, laughing.

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



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