Monarchy Continues as King Steps Down

After years of threatening to abdicate the throne, King Norodom Sihanouk made a decisive move to abdicate on Oct 7, surprising Cambodia’s leaders, diplomats and the general populace alike.

In the days following the announcement, observers were hesitant to accept the decision as final, while political and religious leaders urged the King to change his mind.

But on Thursday, the Royal Council of the Throne named Prince Norodom Sihamoni as the King’s successor, signaling an end to the reign of one of the most important figures of Cambodia’s recent history.

Reasons for King Sihanouk’s abdication are many. Aged 81, he has complained of numerous ailments, most recently a stomach illness discovered by Chinese doctors in Beijing. He has also raised worries of a recurrence of cancer, for which he was treated several years ago. Having long kept a meticulous record of his biography, King Sihanouk has also expressed his pleasure in the past week at being able to preview, through his abdication, how the world will remember him when he is gone.

But a key motivation for King Sihanouk’s abdication appears to be his desire to ensure the continuation of the Cambodian monarchy.

On Monday, the King warned of clashes between unnamed, rival republican factions if a new king were not named before his death. Such bloodshed, he said, has been avoided by the swift passage of a long-awaited Throne Council law and the Council’s assurance that his beloved son, Prince Sihamoni, 51, will take over.

For years, King Sihanouk had repeatedly urged for the Throne Council to name his heir, while Cambodian leaders shirked the issue as taboo.

Asked about the “republican factions” to which the King referred, analysts this week were hesitant to speculate who might be behind them.

When it comes to royalists or republicans, said Thun Saray, director of rights group Adhoc, “everybody hides their position. They don’t like to speak out on this issue.” But, he and others this week agreed that the monarchy, the cornerstone of Cambodia’s 1993 Constitution, is instrumental in retaining stability in the country. “It’s not the person [who takes the throne], it’s the institution,” Thun Saray said. “A stable institution can bring stability.”

Judging by the public’s muted reaction, however, some observers said King Sihanouk’s abdication and Prince Sihamoni’s succession was little to get worked up about. People are going on with their daily lives and aren’t too bothered about the affairs of the monarchy, one Asian diplomat said.

Interviewed this week, many in Phnom Penh were unaware of the royal changeover, and some said they did not know who Prince Sihamoni is.

Ros Phor, 80, from Takeo province, traveled to the capital on Monday for the Pchum Bun holiday and visited the Royal Palace.

“This is the first time I’ve come to the Royal Palace. I wanted to see it before I die,” Ros Phor said. But when asked about the retirement of the palace’s monarch, she said she was unaware of the news.

“I have not heard about the King’s abdication because I live in the countryside. I do not have a radio,” she said, adding that she was indifferent to the King’s decision.

Though King Sihanouk may have ensured the continuation of the monarchy, many observers say it’s difficult to predict how long it will continue, especially with such indifference from the public.

On one point, however, most will agree: As King Sihanouk who has guided his country through its most prosperous era and seen it fall to its most tragic moment passes the throne on to Prince Sihamoni, the new king has a difficult act to follow.

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