PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — When the flames at the cremation ground are quenched and Cambodia’s former monarch Norodom Sihanouk’s ashes scattered on Phnom Penh’s riverfront, the mighty Mekong River may well carry away the country’s last true king, a towering figure in a procession of more than 100 monarchs stretching back 2,000 years.
Today, Cambodia has a new king, but he holds little of the power that Sihanouk once wielded. Instead, a poor farmer’s son and onetime communist commander, strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen, now occupies the dominant position that Sihanouk represented for years.
For over half a century Sihanouk bestrode this Southeast Asian country like a colossus, wresting independence from France, keeping the opposing Cold War powers at bay while maneuvering adroitly — at times brutally — through domestic minefields.
A larger-than-life character, Sihanouk survived wars and the Khmer Rouge reign of terror before succumbing to a heart attack last October at the age of 89. The King-Father, as he is called, will be cremated Monday.
His son, current King Norodom Sihamoni, a gentle man and former ballet dancer, by most accounts ascended the throne reluctantly and does not appear to have inherited any of the father’s political skills needed in Cambodia’s winner-take-all arena.
Bent on monopolizing power, Hun Sen’s regime has not afforded Sihamoni powers guaranteed to the monarchy by the constitution and even restricts the king’s movements outside palace walls, according to royalists and political opponents.
Sihamoni’s shrinking role and personality, together with the erosion of traditional society, does not bode well for monarchy’s long-term future.
“I think the survival of the monarchy after Sihamoni drops off the mortal coil is, at best, a 50-50 bet,” says Milton Osborne, an Australian historian and author of a Sihanouk biography.
“He would be much happier if he could go back to France,” says Son Soubert, the king’s high privy councilor — or to the Czech Republic. Sihamoni spent 25 years in the two countries, as a student in Prague and Cambodia’s ambassador to UNESCO, the cultural body, in Paris.
He has described his time in what was then Czechoslovakia — “my second homeland” — as belonging to the “happiest part of my life” and still speaks Czech like a Prague native. Diplomats say that after dinner, usually taken alone, the 59-year-old bachelor loves to read Czech and French theater reviews and watch DVDs of ballets and operas.
“Grandiose, energetic and charismatic, Sihanouk was considered by many as the quintessential ‘God-King’, a model which contrasts sharply with the quiet, reserved, and circumscribed stance of Sihamoni,” says Astrid Noren-Nilsson, a political scientist at Cambridge University. “Whilst Sihanouk was a natural-born, astute politician, Sihamoni does not aspire to any political role.”
By contrast, Hun Sen, in power for 28 years after defecting from the Khmer Rouge, says he won’t step down until he’s 90 and is grooming his three sons for bigger things, the eldest already a two-star general holding key military positions. Hun Sen’s brother is a provincial governor, a nephew-in-law serves as national police chief and a daughter recently bought the colonial building that housed Phnom Penh’s City Hall. Family members, relatives and political cronies control vast business enterprises.
Bridges, schools and roads across the country bear Hun Sen’s name, or that of his powerful wife Bun Rany, and both have had royal-like titles bestowed on them. His is Samdech Akka Moha Sena Padei Techo, or Illustrious Prince, Great Supreme Protector and Famed Warrior. In 2009, the prime minister announced that in a previous life he had been King Korn, a peasant who rose up to usurp the throne in the late 15th century. He has since sponsored statues and a book about the monarch.
Observers note that some of Hun Sen’s actions bear an uncanny resemblance to those of Sihanouk, including the latter’s hours-long speeches, the forays into the countryside to bond with villagers via handouts and earthy language, and even the two men’s propensity to belt out songs in public. Hun Sen, like Sihanouk, brooks no rivals to his power.
However, the government denies it is trying to relegate Sihamoni to the shadows.
Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith says Hun Sen swore a sacred oath before Sihanouk’s corpse to protect the monarchy and that relations between the prime minister and Sihamoni are “very good.”
“The reason why some people say the king is without power, a prisoner in the palace, is because they compare him to the King-Father. This is wrong,” the minister said. “Sihanouk was also head of state involved in politics. The current king is playing the classic role of protecting Cambodian unity, tradition, religion. The king will survive if he is firmly committed to this constitutional role.”
To date, Sihamoni has shown little desire to expand his role, staying in the background as long his father was alive. “Now we will see if he can exercise his power. It depends on him, now that he has a free hand. He has to show that he is king,” Son Soubert says.
The constitution stipulates that the monarch heads a potentially powerful Supreme Council of National Defense and an annual People’s National Congress. But the law enacting the council has languished in draft form since 1993 and there is no draft yet related to the congress. Son Soubert says axing the congress would break a long tradition allowing all citizens direct access to the king.
Sihamoni, his councilor says, has also not been allowed to take some trips abroad, including one on invitation from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. And diplomats say he would like, if permitted, to take more trips to the countryside, where his father enjoyed his greatest support but where Sihamoni cannot make much of a difference.
“I don’t know him very well. I just know that he is the son of the King-Father so I will love him too,” said Khim Touch, a 60-year-old farmer from Kampot province who like hundreds of thousands others came to Phnom Penh to pay her last respects to Sihanouk. She recalled Sihanouk once coming to her village to pass out sarongs, rice seeds and cash.
Soung Sophorn, a young human rights lawyer, says the king’s popularity is fast diminishing because “people see that he cannot solve their problems compared to what Sihanouk did. The king himself is not strong, brave enough to oppose Hun Sen, and Hun Sen has closed all the doors.”
Because of the current king’s isolation, the lawyer says Sihamoni is losing touch with the country’s vital majority, the young, while Hun Sen may even gain support from the older generation because he is portraying himself as a Sihanouk admirer as he serves as master of ceremonies at his elaborate funeral.
Others disagree. Nilsson says the mass outpouring of grief and reverence following Sihanouk’s death has strengthened the institution although since Sihanouk’s abdication in 2004 “the monarchy has increasingly moved to become a decorative monarchy along the lines of Western European constitutional monarchies.”
“The passing of Sihanouk can be understood as the end-point of this longer process, cementing the role of the monarchy as a strictly constitutional one,” she says. “Since Sihamoni carries himself as a strictly constitutional monarch, the monarchy no longer poses any challenge to Hun Sen, and Hun Sen will have no reason to act against the monarchy.”
The royalists themselves wrestle with how to deal with Sihanouk’s complex legacy. The young king abdicated the throne for the first time in 1955 to assume various political leadership roles, including head of state for life, although he was back on the throne later. Sihanouk in fact eroded kingly power while retaining the aura of kingship in the eyes of the general population.
Exactly what kind of a mantle Sihamoni may assume remains to be seen, but Osborne says that for now the monarchy remains important for Cambodia’s sense of national identity, at least among some segments of the population. And Geoffrey Gunn, a Southeast Asia expert at Japan’s Nagasaki University, adds that at times of national crisis royalty can be wielded as a rallying national symbol.
“I think Hun Sen understands that he cannot diminish the status of the monarchy to irrelevance,” Gunn says.