Five hundred and ninety-seven days into his retirement, former King Norodom Sihanouk landed at Phnom Penh International Airport in the afternoon of May 26.
After a 16-month absence, the retired King was greeted by more than 100 government officials, foreign diplomats, and Prime Minister Hun Sen, who were there to greet him.
The 83-year-old ex-monarch, a seminal figure in the history of Cambodia, waved to reporters but said nothing before stepping into a car with the Queen Mother, Norodom Monineath, and driving off.
“He would like to come back a long time ago but he did not feel OK to return because some people criticized him,” Prince Norodom Youvaneath, one of the retired King’s sons, told reporters at the airport.
In statements made during the months prior to his return, Norodom Sihanouk said alternately that fear of political upheaval and also his failing health had prevented him from returning home.
In January, however, he said his elongated absence was in fact due to the painful memory of anti-Sihanoukist propaganda, broadcast the previous October on Cambodian television stations, at the request of Hun Sen.
Frustrated that King Norodom Sihamoni was unavailable to sign off on a controversial new border treaty with Vietnam, Hun Sen ordered TV and radio stations to play Lon Nol-era songs that accused Sihanouk of ceding land to its larger neighbor.
“The fact that the new generation publicized the song made me…[remember] the abasement against me,” Norodom Sihanouk wrote in a message posted to his Web site at the time.
However, seven days after his return in May, Norodom Sihanouk, during a banquet at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, described the prime minister as his own son and a “new hero of Cambodia.”
“King Norodom Sihamoni and I both support Samdech Hun Sen to lead the country for the whole of his life,” the former King told the gathering, at which he sang 21 songs, plus one requested by Hun Sen.
It appears to be the closest Norodom Sihanouk has been to Hun Sen and the ruling CPP in the past 13 years since UNTAC, said Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia.
“He knows that the CPP is the major party with a critical role in stabilizing the country and guaranteeing the existence of the monarchy,” he said.
National stability and the survival of the Cambodian monarchy are the two overriding preoccupations of Norodom Sihanouk, though his life-long interest in national politics is also evident.
Kek Galabru, president of local rights group Licadho, said the former King remains very much interested, if not directly implicated in politics.
“I think he’s still involved in politics in the larger sense of the term,” she said. “He is aware of the situation of Cambodia, he follows the situation, he is informed. But I don’t think he wants to come back to politics.”
And for those who think the retired King may still somehow be engaged in politics, Norodom Sihanouk has continued the steady drumbeat of disclaimers.
“His Majesty King-Father Norodom Sihanouk has repeatedly stated on countless occasions that He only wishes to live in peace and stay out of politics,” the former King’s cabinet reiterated in April.
In the year since his last birthday, Norodom Sihanouk has witnessed both the decline and the emergence of parties that trade in the symbols of his long political career.
Among the casualties were dozens of Funcinpec members who were fired by Hun Sen, and Prince Norodom Sirivudh, who was removed as co-Interior Minister. Under fierce verbal attack from the CPP, Prince Norodom Ranariddh quit as National Assembly president and was then forced out as president of Funcinpec.
As the week of Ranariddh’s ouster ended, the former King had not yet responded to a letter informing him of Keo Puth Rasmey’s installation as Funcinpec president, said Nouv Sovathero, the party’s newly appointed spokesman.
Nouv Sovathero therefore declined to speculate on what Norodom Sihanouk’s relations would be with a post-Ranariddh Funcinpec. In an Oct 20 letter to Prince Ranariddh, the former King described the changes to Funcinpec as an “unforeseen Tragedy.”
Funcinpec will remain a firmly royalist party, said Nouv Sovathero, noting that Keo Puth Rasmey is married to Princess Norodom Arun Rasmey, retired King Sihanouk’s youngest daughter.
The former King has saved his strongest criticism for his nephew Prince Sisowath Thomico, who, to oppose Hun Sen and the CPP, has formed the recently launched Sangkum Jatiniyum Front Party.
Norodom Sihanouk has ridiculed every aspect of the party, from its finances to its proposed ideology, even at one point discussing Prince Thomico’s marital status.
“[T]he terrible blows that Thomico has taken too great a pleasure in dealing me under the pretext struggling against our Great Leader are endured by me with a certain stoicism,” the former King wrote in September.
In an interview, Prince Thomico said he would not directly discuss the King-Father’s apparent disapproval of the SJF.
“I am reminded of the phrase of Buddha, ‘Everything is illusion. Even illusion is illusion,'” Prince Thomico said.
“You have to be very careful because sometimes the reality behind things may not be what you see,” he said.
The King-Father’s unique gestures towards the different political parties in Cambodia are an attempt to diffuse the many competing tensions, he said.
“I think that you cannot understand the stance of King Sihanouk if you do not have in mind what is most important to him: Peace and stability,” Prince Thomico said.
“It means that whenever he feels that peace and stability are at stake, he will take a softer stance toward the CPP, just to cool and smooth things down.”
As an example, Prince Thomico pointed out that in September, after both he and Prince Ranariddh called for the King-Father to return to politics, the former King reacted immediately.
“It is not and never will it be a question for me whether to accept the post of prime minister…or another post or assignment that forces me to leave my retirement,” he wrote in a Sept 15 communique marked “very urgent.”
Nevertheless, two days later, Hun Sen gave an angry speech broadcast on radio and television in which he denounced Princes Ranariddh and Thomico for sedition.
And this is just the sort of thing the former King is seeking to avoid by employing his idiosyncratic approach to each party, Prince Thomico said.