King Norodom Sihanouk has seen his country occupied three times, has been betrayed and overthrown and has spent nearly two decades in exile. He has had children killed by revolutionaries. His country has been ripped apart by war and suffocated by poverty.
But in his twilight years, the King, who recently turned 77, is fading.
Who will replace him is a question few in Cambodia will openly discuss, for fear of showing disrespect to the King. But the subject has been raised more frequently in recent months as the King himself says he is dogged by poor health.
Some say the monarchy today is an outdated concept, no longer serving the needs of the country, and should be abolished in favor of a republic. Others charge that with one party effectively ruling Cambodia, the King is needed to speak for and protect the people to help minimize the abuse of power. And there is still a loyal following, especially in the countryside, that sees the King as the country’s one true leader.
“Whoever is chosen as Cambodia’s next king, the monarchy will never be the same after Norodom Sihanouk,” says Sam Rainsy, leader of the country’s opposition party. “He will be probably the last of Cambodia’s great kings.”
The role the future king will play in Cambodia is unclear. He could serve as a figurehead, merely overseeing royal ceremonies and entertaining heads of state. Or he could, in theory, assume more wide-ranging powers granted by the Constitution—broader powers, some say, than King Sihanouk has exercised.
“Our King has not played his role as monarch fully,” says Lao Mong Hay, executive director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy. “He has not exercised his constitutional powers. If the government doesn’t work well, if the Parliament is just rubber stamping, then the King can step in.
“Many people,” he says, “wish he could do more.”
But in interviews with foreign and Cambodian political analysts, a picture emerges of an isolated and increasingly powerless monarch who once commanded the center stage in Cambodian politics.
Though the monarchy still rallies blind devotion for many, Cambodia has a young population and the monarchy is losing the mystique it once had. King Sihanouk’s successor, and the future of the monarchy itself, depends not on bloodlines but political convenience, at least while Hun Sen remains prime minister and perhaps longer.
“The next king will have no chance to survive without support from the current prime minister,” says a Cambodian analyst with ties to all three main parties. “He will be a real symbol of the monarchy. Nothing else. Otherwise, he will not survive.”
According to the Constitution, the throne is open to any member of the Royal family, at least 30 years old, descending from King Ang Dong, King Norodom or King Sisowath. This could include hundreds of people, but only a handful are recognized as the most likely candidates.
The short list includes National Assembly President Prince Norodom Ranariddh, the King’s son and one-time first prime minister; Prince Norodom Sirivudh, the King’s half brother who was expelled in 1995 for allegedly plotting to assassinate Hun Sen then granted amnesty by the King last year; and Prince Norodom Sihamoni, the King’s son with Queen Norodom Monineath, who lives in Paris and serves as Cambodia’s representative to Unesco.
The suggestion is also raised periodically that the Constitution could be changed to make Queen Norodom Monineath the reigning monarch. National Assembly has the power to do this, needing a two-thirds vote by its members.
The succession process is often criticized as being too highly politicized. Unlike countries such as England which has a hereditary monarchy with the successor known far in advance, the next monarch here will be chosen by the Royal Council of the Throne. The nine-member body is composed of the prime minister, the top three posts in both the National Assembly and the Senate and the leaders of the country’s two Buddhist sects. The CPP currently controls five of the nine seats.
Whoever assumes the throne, the King’s successor will be stepping into a legacy nearly impossible to match.
“He is a political survivor who commands tremendous political respect,” says Kao Kim Hourn, executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace. “The next king will have to work very hard. He will have to show that he’s capable. The King worked very hard to get where he is today—more than 20 years to restore the throne, to restore the country as a new kingdom.”
Through most of the 1990s, the King’s actions have been more subtle. His preferred method for speaking out on issues—both social and political—is his monthly newsletter, Bulletin Mensuel de Documentation, a collection of correspondences and press clippings critiqued by the King. He uses it as a forum to defend himself against his critics. But he also bemoans the violence, poverty and lack of education in the country and condemns corruption and mismanagement in the government.
The BMD, analysts say, is the King’s political tool—one of his last remaining tools.
In a scribbling in the margin of the BMD recently, the King spoke in favor of an international tribunal for former Khmer Rouge leaders. Whether or not Hun Sen was influenced by media reports detailing the King’s comment, he said a few days later that he now supports the involvement of foreign judges in the trial.
According to article seven of the Constitution, “The king shall reign but shall not govern.” But the Constitution is vague on the powers given to the king, leaving much room for interpretation. The King, for instance, oversees the Supreme Council of the Magistracy, charged with ensuring a fair court system and disciplining judges. The King is also charged by the Constitution with ensuring the proper functioning of public institutions, though it does not say which institutions or what powers of enforcement the king should have.
“It’s very general, so it’s up to him to decide how to use it,” says Chea Vannath, president of the Center for Social Development, one of the groups that signed the letter. “It allows him to exercise his power broadly.”
For Lao Mong Hay, of the Khmer Institute of Democracy, “the question is one of courage.”
“Deep down, because of his overthrow in 1970, he seems to be scared of powerful figures,” he says. “He does not want to antagonize, lest he be thrown out again.”
Taking a more active role in politics carries too many risks for the King, says the Cambodian analyst with ties to the three main parties, adding that King Sihanouk has neither the support from government leadership to openly oppose Hun Sen nor the desire to jeopardize the monarchy.
“The King has a lot of theoretical power in the Constitution. In practice, he understands it’s not a power he can exercise,” he says. “Each time King Sihanouk has said something that directly or indirectly involved politics, he is told by the people in power that he should not do politics. He has tried to step in and people have let him know very fast. He’s tried many times.
“His concern is how to make the royal family survive,” he says. “Since he has to be very careful with the prime minister, he has to do things in a way that the prime minister cannot accuse him of interfering….He knows how to not go to far. That’s his wisdom.”
But in the eyes of Hun Sen, King Sihanouk often goes too far, and in choosing his successor, analysts say, the CPP will make sure the next monarch is controllable, if not weak.
A top-ranking CPP official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the party has already chosen who it wants to succeed the King. He refused to name the candidate, but made clear that the party wants the next king to focus on religion and culture—not politics.
“In the 1960s, the King could rule by himself. But he was out of the country for 20 years. Now society is more complicated. You need a big team to rule,” the official said. “Before, the King was like both the prime minister and the president. The King still thinks he’s between prime minister and president.”
The official also said the CPP resents that the King speaks out on topics seen as political. Asked about the BMD, he shook his head in disappointment. “It was the King himself who decided after the Untac period that the King will reign, but not rule,” he said.
“But he is not comfortable to stay out of politics.”
Whether or not King Sihanouk’s actions over the past several years can be called political, they have been effective, says a Western political observer. “He’s used his position not as a figurehead, not as a rubber stamp, but to influence events in Cambodia, and he has,” he says. “No one is going to have it as King Sihanouk has it now. But the question is: Who can develop it to counterbalance a hot-headed prime minister when it’s needed?”
For Thach Bunroeun—“a Sihanoukist, a Royalist, a Khmerist,” as he describes himself—King Sihanouk and the king to follow will determine the future of the country. “If Cambodia is going to survive, we must have monarchy, in the true sense. Khmer monarchy represents Khmer culture, the Khmer soul.”
He compares present-day Cambodia to the Christian biblical story of Moses leading the Israelites through the desert. When the Israelites became disenchanted and began worshipping a golden calf, God sent to Moses the Ten Commandments.
“Cambodia today needs Ten Commandments,” Thach Bunroeun says. “Cambodia today needs a sage. Cambodia today needs a revolutionary leader with integrity, with moral principal. The next king of Cambodia should be that person.”