He has been regarded with some skepticism and much mystery by many of his fellow Cambodians for his long absence from the public eye.
But prior to his unanimous election to the throne Thursday, Prince Norodom Sihamoni, the next king of Cambodia, had distinguished himself through a biography intertwined with Cambodian history and a career devoted to the preservation of Cambodian arts, his biographers and colleagues said.
Born May 14, 1953 to King Norodom Sihanouk and Queen Norodom Monineath, Prince Sihamoni was educated in Phnom Penh and Prague, Czechoslovakia, where he obtained his high school diploma in 1970.
He trained there in dance, music and theater until moving to Pyongyang, North Korea, in 1976 to study cinematography, according to Julio Jeldres’ 2003 book “The Royal House of Cambodia.”
In April 1976, Prince Sihamoni received a fake telegram emblazoned with his father’s forged signature, summoning him back to Phnom Penh, Jeldres wrote. Prince Sihamoni lived under virtual house arrest with his parents and several other members of the royal family until January 1979, when a few members of the family were evacuated on a Chinese plane.
He served as his father’s secretary in China and North Korea for two years and then left to teach dance in France, later forming a troupe that performed pieces choreographed by Prince Sihamoni, according to Jeldres.
Following the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1991, the Supreme National Council unanimously elected the prince as Cambodia’s ambassador and permanent representative to the UN.
On Aug 30, 1993, he was appointed Cambodia’s ambassador to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, headquartered in Paris. He left that post in August.
Those who worked with him in Paris recall Prince Sihamoni as a champion of Khmer arts.
“At Unesco, he has defended his country with strong conviction,” said Etienne Clement, Unesco’s country representative in Cambodia, earlier this week. “He is a man of culture,” he said.
Prince Sihamoni is fluent in Khmer, French and Czech, Jeldres wrote. He is a bachelor with no children.
Despite his service to the country abroad, the future king is still a stranger to many of his compatriots.
“I know nothing about our new king. Who is Norodom Sihamoni?” asked Yeay Yun, 78, who was selling lotus flowers and coconuts in front of the Royal Palace Thursday at the time of Prince Sihamoni’s election to the throne.
(Additional reporting by Kay Kimsong and Michelle Vachon)