King Norodom Sihanouk has abdicated the throne, announced his son, National Assembly President Prince Norodom Ranariddh, on Thursday, calling into question the future of Cambodia’s monarchy.
King Sihanouk, who was initially scheduled to return from Beijing on Thursday, wrote a letter to Prince Ranariddh and Prime Minister Hun Sen Wednesday night, informing them of his decision to step down, Prince Ranariddh told reporters at the Assembly.
“I am very sad that the King said he has retired,” Prince Ranariddh said. “From now on, the King has abdicated.”
An heir to Cambodia’s throne has not been chosen, though some political leaders have tipped their favor to Prince Norodom Sihamoni, 51, the son of King Sihanouk and Queen Norodom Monineath, to become the next reigning monarch.
According to a copy of the King’s letter, which also addressed top monk Supreme Patriarch Tep Vong and Senate President Chea Sim, the 81-year-old monarch said he was retiring due to his age.
The King has repeatedly complained of numerous ailments, most recently stomach problems, as well as concerns of a possible return of cancer, which he suffered years ago.
In his letter, King Sihanouk said he should not be asked to sign any further decrees or subdecrees “because Norodom Sihanouk already retired, and cannot reply or approve” of any such legislation.
He also urged the nine-member Throne Council, in charge of selecting a new reigning monarch, to quickly appoint his successor. Since the Throne Council was established under the 1993 Constitution, no legislation has yet been passed to determine the selection process.
King Sihanouk has threatened to abdicate, then backed off, on several occasions in the past. In recent months, however, he has repeated his intention to abandon the throne with greater frequency.
But Thursday’s announcement has left some observers and diplomats in doubt as to whether the King has indeed stepped down.
“The situation is not so clear,” said Japanese Ambassador Fumiaki Takahashi.
Referring to the King Sihanouk’s letter, which may be open to interpretation, Takahashi added: “This is always the way the King performs.”
Another Asian diplomat also questioned the King’s abdication, saying it still appeared uncertain.
There is no article in the Constitution to stipulate what happens when a king decides to abdicate.
The diplomat said that while Cambodia does not appear poised for crisis, King Sihanouk’s return to Cambodia from months of self-imposed exile will be good for the country. His return could lend symbolic legitimacy to the new government though that may be unfavorable for some parties, the diplomat said.
On Thursday, Prince Ranariddh blamed opposition leader Sam Rainsy for the King’s abdication notice and postponed return.
The opposition leader had written a letter to the King and Queen on Wednesday, informing him of “alarming news” that a violent protest against the royal couple had been organized for their arrival in Cambodia.
“I am very disappointed with Sam Rainsy’s behavior that he informed King Norodom Sihanouk without consideration of the difficulties that have caused a political crisis,” Prince Ranariddh said.
“Sam Rainsy’s aim is to cause political and constitutional chaos,” he added, urging the Ministry of Interior to call Sam Rainsy in for questioning.
Sam Rainsy, however, said Thursday he will not answer to the Ministry of Interior and accused the government of plotting a demonstration against the King, with the intent to frame his party for it.
“This is a political problem. I am not a criminal,” he said.
Meanwhile, Prince Ranariddh said he will fly to Beijing today in an attempt to appeal to the King to return to Cambodia.
He also said he has called a meeting with CPP Secretary-General Say Chhum and CPP Honorary President Heng Samrin to jointly urge the King not to abdicate.
He added that he will also hold a meeting of Throne Council members, including himself and Hun Sen, to do the same.