Even if a new king is chosen to take over the monarchy, King Norodom Sihanouk’s influence over the country will remain as strong as ever, observers and royalist officials said this week.
“No matter what happens, [King Sihanouk’s] presence is still very overwhelming,” said Huy Kanthuol Vora, secretary of state to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
As long as King Sihanouk is alive, he said: “He’s the one. He’s the conscience of the country, regardless of what happens.”
Since his announced abdication last week, the 81-year-old monarch has rejected calls to reconsider his decision, saying he wants to ensure the survival of the monarchy after his death. The Royal Council of the Throne is widely expected to select his son Prince Norodom Sihamoni as his successor today.
In recent months, King Sihanouk has repeatedly stated in messages posted on his Web site that he and Queen Norodom Monineath will retreat to his palace in Siem Reap after he steps down and that he will stay out of public life.
The King has said he would no longer accept official delegations, post statements on his Web site, nor answer letters or e-mail messages because he would not have a royal Cabinet to receive them.
The King also signed a royal decree last month, asking that people refer to him as “simply ‘Samdech Euv’ or ‘Samdech Ta’ or ‘Samdech Ta-tuot,’” rather than “His Majesty” or “His Royal Highness the Prince.”
Foreigners, he said, could call him “‘Samdech’ or simply ‘Mister’…or ‘Sir.’”
Further signaling his withdrawal from public life, statements from the King over the past week have lacked the royal insignia they traditionally bore.
But many say the King, who is often outspoken about the state of his country and its leaders, will not so easily slip into a life of seclusion.
When King Sihanouk first ascended the throne in 1941 at the age of 18 following the death of his grandfather King Monivong, his father, then-Prince Norodom Sunamarit, was revered as the “monarch father,” said Prince Sisowath Sirirath, former co-minister of defense.
Similarly, he said, King Sihanouk will likely retain his status as the royal patriarch, while the country will continue to follow him.
According to the new Throne Council law adopted by the Senate on Monday, the abdicated king will also remain protected from criticism or legal action by an article in the Constitution that states: “The King is inviolable.”
Some members of Funcinpec have speculated that the King may even return to politics, as he did after he first abdicated in 1955, and lead their party, reviving it from its slide in popularity over the past decade, one senior royalist said.
But other observers said they expect the King to play a major role in counseling Prince Sihamoni, if he becomes the country’s reigning monarch.
Those who know Prince Sihamoni describe him as a devoted son, who closely follows the guidance of his father.
“He always follows the advice of his parents,” Supreme Patriarch Bou Kry, one of the prince’s closest confidants, said Tuesday.
Added Kek Galabru, founder of local rights group Licadho: “[Prince Sihamoni] can be a good king with advice from his father.”
But, she said, “It’s very difficult to replace the King because he has a lot of experience. The people love him. Also, the international community knows him…. Nobody can replace King Sihanouk.”