Monarch Wears a Hollow Crown in a Kafkaesque Kingdom

If Jayavarman VII is known among Cambodians and the rest of the world as the greatest monarch that Cambodia ever produced for having ruled the country (then the Khmer Empire) to its zenith; if Chey Chettha II is known as the worst of the worst for ceding huge parts of Kampuchea Krom, or Lower Cambodia, to Vietnam to satisfy his Vietnamese wife, Princess Nguyen Thi Ngoc Van of the Nguyen Dynasty; and if the late King Norodom Sihanouk is known as the “playboy king” for being a womanizer during his adulthood, a “madman” for being a genius, a “red king” for joining hands with the Communists or the “royal crusader” for demanding his country’s independence from France…then what, exactly, does the present King Norodom Sihamoni want his fellow Cambodians and the world to know him for?

A dancer, a puppet, a prisoner of the palace? A reluctant, simple or Machiavellian king? Or something that is yet to be decided? It is his choice!

King Sihamoni has now reigned for just over a decade. Ten years ago, at his coronation, he addressed his beloved people, promising he would always be their “faithful and devoted servant.” Yet he admitted to a lack of experience and vowed not to interfere in politics. He pledged: “The Royal House will remain a transparent house. And for me there will never be an ivory tower.”

In truth, if one looks at Cambodia’s history, King Sihamoni is among the luckiest out of an estimated 86 monarchs, if only because he smoothly acceded to the throne without any upheaval or usurpation.

Ten years ago, having secured support from Cambodia’s strongman, Prime Minister Hun Sen, King Sihamoni was unanimously chosen by the Privy Council to succeed his father. In some ways, he was in the right place at the right time.

His crown, at the very least, was clean of any bloodstains.

Yet a hidden agenda was played out behind the scenes. It was the late King Sihanouk who had engineered the right moment for his son’s succession. After all, it was through meticulous planning, not by accident, that King Sihanouk surprised the nation and the rest of the world with his abdication—a move dubbed by The New York Times as “one final hand in a lifelong game of chance.”

Apparently the only monarch in the world to have abdicated twice, King Sihanouk did so for several reasons, which he said were a “must do” to ensure the survival of the monarchy. The move not only allowed him to “secure influence in the choice of his successor” and “oversee the transition and help his heir find his footing,” according to the Times, but also assured his wife’s “well-being after he is gone.”

King Sihamoni is best known for being a former ballet dancer and instructor, choreographer, cinematographer and cultural diplomat. Unlike his father, who preferred living a life of extravagance to match his flamboyant personality, King Sihamoni has reigned over Cambodia in a markedly quiet manner.

Seen as lacking freedom and sometimes placed under intense pressures from politicians, some say King Sihamoni is discontented in his role as a sovereign monarch. The happiest moment of his life was almost certainly not during his reign as King but during his time in Prague, which he called “my second homeland.” It is widely believed that his father had to try several times to persuade him to take the throne.

By maintaining a low profile, King Sihamoni has distanced himself from the country’s politics. However, by maintaining minimum involvement in sensitive public issues, he is often seen as weak and inactive.

Nevertheless, he remains a symbol of national unity and reconciliation, as well as the guardian of the country’s history, traditions and religion.

He represents the epicenter of the Khmer souls as he goes about his day-to-day tasks, mainly keeping himself and occupied with social, humanitarian and religious affairs.

He has also made known his desire to take part in a revival of his country’s education, health care and cultural institutions.

His father once said: “My son is not interested in politics. He loves social affairs, culture and fine arts and literature…. If Norodom Sihamoni stays on the throne, there will be harmony for the national and international community.”

Unlike his father, who sometimes bitterly fought for his monarchical power and actively involved himself in politics as a so-called “royal check and balance” through his well-known blog, rarely has King Sihamoni publicly voiced any feelings on the heavy burden that comes with being a constitutional king.

Apparently adapting a strict interpretation of the Constitution, he dutifully abides by the concept of “reign but not rule.”

Some of his massive-sounding roles with seemingly no real powers include being the guarantor of the country’s national independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity; ensuring the independence of the judiciary; acting as an arbitrator to ensure the faithful execution of public powers; and serving as the supreme commander of the armed forces and the chairman of the Supreme Council of the National Defense.

Having presided over a decade of rapid changes in Cambodia’s political landscape, King Sihamoni has so far been exposed to at least two uneasy situations that placed him in the spotlight and tested his leadership, political acumen and intelligence.

The King’s first and toughest test was in late 2005 when he initially refused to sign off on the controversial supplementary border treaty between Cambodia and Vietnam.

The treaty was viewed by many Khmer ethno-nationalists, including his father, as illegal and against the genuine spirit of the Paris Peace Agreements. These critics said it would enshrine all past border treaties that had been entered into between Cambodia and Vietnam in 1979, 1982, 1983 and 1985, when Cambodia was occupied by Vietnam.

Perhaps at the advice of his father, King Sihamoni instead chose to leave the country for Beijing under the pretext of receiving medical treatment.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, at the time, seemingly threatened to abolish the monarchy, saying “we must review, should we keep the monarchy or form a republic?”

Since this incident, and particularly in the aftermath of his father’s death, King Sihamoni has adopted a truly nonconfrontational, more cooperative, subservient and cooler attitude toward Mr. Hun Sen’s government and the ruling CPP—an attitude that has resulted in him being called a “puppet king.”

This was clearly seen when he decided to convene the new National Assembly in September last year despite the fact that the opposition CNRP was still contesting the election results and warning of a parliamentary boycott.

Things almost certainly would have played out differently under his father.

As it was, King Sihamoni took heavy criticism for taking such a soft stance toward the CPP, which was accused of carrying out massive vote rigging, and for his failure to meaningfully intervene in solving the post-election crisis and avert violent conflicts.

Many wonder whether he is a king of division or a king of personal interest when he chooses to take the side of those in power and seems to turn a deaf ear to the opposition and the marginalized, or speak against any sensitive issues endangering the nation.

How much can King Sihamoni contribute to the sustainability of his country’s peace, harmony and happiness? To what extent is Cambodia’s monarchy necessary? Will King Sihamoni be the country’s last monarch?

Ten years into an uneasy reign in a country dubbed by his father a “Kafkaesque Kingdom,” King Sihamoni has no doubt experienced both psychological and physical unease.

At a very challenging time when most among Cambodia’s young generation are no longer so-called “royalists at heart,” and when the King’s reverence among ordinary Cambodians is being questioned, perhaps only Shakespeare could appreciate the depth of King Sihamoni’s sorrow when the playwright wrote some 400 years ago: “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”

Sovannarith Keo is an independent researcher focusing on Cambodian and Southeast Asian foreign policy and security issues.

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