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