A reluctant Heir, a Devoted Leader

When King Norodom Si­ha­­moni ascended the throne more than six months ago, those close to him described him as a reluctant heir to the monarchy.

Shy, inexperienced, and more comfortable living a private existence in France, King Sihamoni nev­er had ambitions of taking over for his father, retired King No­rodom Sihanouk, the retired King acknowledged at the time.

But in his first words to the na­tion on Oct 30, 2004, King Si­ha­mo­ni’s dedication to his new job was clear.

“My respected and beloved com­patriots, I will always be your faith­ful and devoted servant,” he told the thousands of well-wishers who had gathered in front of the Roy­al Palace.

“I will never live apart from the be­loved People. The Royal Palace will remain a transparent house. And for me, there will never be an ivory tower,” he said.

In his speech, King Sihamoni said the outgoing monarch had not­ed that his son’s “greatly fear[ed] having to take on a re­spon­sibility that seems to be too heavy.” But, he said, the retired King advised him that regardless of the council of others, “it is by be­ing in contact with the people and the realities of the Country that one learns how to become more and more capable of serving, defending and developing Cam­bodia.”

In the short period he has been on the throne, King Sihamoni ap­pears to have taken this advise to heart.

As one of his first duties as King, the former ballet dancer trav­eled to Kompong Speu prov­ince only days after his coronation, where he met with throngs of rural villagers who had fallen victim to flooding and subsequent drought. He then traveled to Ta­keo province days later to meet with the poor there.

Since then, he has made at least a dozen trips to the prov­inces and has invited villagers’ rep­resentatives to air their greiv­ances at the Royal Palace.

Cutting out a very different role for himself than that of his father, King Sihamoni has managed to steer clear of the country’s political arena.

To this end, he has received some help from the seasoned politician Norodom Sihanouk.

In February, the National As­sem­bly voted to strip opposition leader Sam Rainsy and two of his par­ty lawmakers of their parliamentary immunity, allowing the courts to proceed with legal ac­tion against them. The move prompt­ed Sam Rainsy to flee the country amid accusations that he de­famed National Assembly Pres­i­dent—and the King’s older half brother—Prince Norodom Rana­riddh. Meanwhile, the opposition party urged for the King’s help to return the lawmakers to parliament.

Instead, Norodom Sihanouk stepped in, diffusing the appeals for King Sihamoni’s intervention.

“King Norodom Sihamoni is in­un­dated with ‘papers’ coming from Samrainsyists asking His Ma­jesty to achieve this ‘tour de force,’” Norodom Sihanouk wrote.

“This is truly a Herculean task. Since the nice King Norodom Si­ha­moni is too modest to compare him­self to Hercules, he has asked or will ask…Samdech Norodom Ra­nariddh and Samdech Hun Sen to look with as much benevolence as possible into the Sam Rain­syists’ various requests,” he wrote.

Royal watchers may also note that the new King has, to a great ex­tent, avoided the kind of public scru­tiny his father has long experienced.

While Norodom Sihanouk posts near-daily—and sometimes controversial—letters and opinions on his official Web site, publicized per­sonal statements from King Si­ha­moni have been rare.

In fact, the last letter posted on King Sihamoni’s Web page was in De­cember. That was an official let­ter from Thai Ambassador Pi­ya­wat Niyomrerks, thanking King Sihamoni for his message of con­dolences to Thailand, in the wake of the Dec 26 tsunami.

On the eve of the Khmer New Year last month, traditionally a time when the King gives his new year greeting to the nation, palace of­ficials said King Sihamoni had no message to give.

In his place, Senate President Chea Sim issued an open letter to wel­come in the new year, which was read out by a broadcaster on state-run TVK.

If not through politics, King Si­ha­moni has expressed his intention to achieve national unity through his passion, the arts.

This approach, however, has not been without its own hurdles.

In an interview published by the International Herald Tribune in January, King Sihamoni spoke of his plan to renovate the Na­tion­al Theater, also known as the King Suramarit national theater.

A former dancer, choreographer and cinematographer, King Si­ha­moni’s aim was to raise $30 million to revamp the theater, in or­der to bring about a cultural ren­ais­sance in the country.

That plan, however, was sidelined by a Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts deal that handed over the renovation project to a private com­pany. In exchange for renovating the theater, Kith Meng, chairman of Cambodian Tele­vi­sion Net­work and Mobitel, will re­ceive an as yet undisclosed parcel of land around the theater to build a con­ference center and office building.

Far from working to his disadvantage, King Sihamoni’s understated leadership and aversion to politics has allowed him to remain a neutral and well-respected head of state, according to Lao Mong Hay of the Center for Social Dev­el­opment.

“At last, we have found our na­tional reconcilor,” Lao Mong Hay said. In a country divided along po­

 

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