Despite his limited role as head of state in Cambodia’s constitutional
monarchy, King Sihanouk remained central to Cambodian society and
politics throughout his second reign as King, often transcending the political upheavals of the turbulent 1990s.
On September 24, 1993, Prince Norodom Sihanouk was reinstated as King of Cambodia, restoring the country’s monarchy after 23 years of republican then communist rule under three different regimes.
Despite his limited role as head of state in Cambodia’s constitutional monarchy, King Sihanouk remained central to Cambodian society and politics throughout his second reign as King, often transcending the political upheavals of the turbulent 1990s.
Questions surrounding King Sihanouk’s possible abdication and succession and his involvement in resolving political tensions would turn out to be some of the most recurrent themes over the past 15 years.
From 1993 until his surprise abdication and succession by King Norodom Sihamoni in 2004, King Sihanouk steadily continued to voice his concern over the state of affairs in his country and the plight of his people.
Three years after his return to the throne, King Sihanouk first raised the issue of abdication and succession after medical checkups during his stay in China had revealed serious health problems. In March 1996 the King named his son Prince Norodom Ranariddh as his likely successor.
The prince, who was leader of the royalist Funcinpec party and in a coalition government with Hun Sen’s CPP, quickly downplayed his throne prospects and said he had no desire to become King, preferring to stay in politics instead.
It would be a fateful decision.
Political tensions between the coalition partners began to heat up as the parties headed towards the 1998 national election and would erupt in July 1997 in two days of fighting, which saw Funcinpec forces routed by CPP soldiers loyal to then-Second Prime Minister Hun Sen.
King Sihanouk, in Beijing for medical treatment, released a statement in which he refused to label the action a “coup” and stated he would not stand in the way of legitimate challenges to the government’s composition.
Having left the country ahead of the fighting, Prince Ranariddh was sentenced in absentia to a 35-year prison term by the Military Court in March 1998 for plotting a coup with the Khmer Rouge forces and for illegally buying and transporting weapons.
Ahead of a meeting with CPP and Funcinpec leaders in Beijing he had organized with the hope of resolving the political crisis, King Sihanouk told the media on August 11, 1997, that he was ready to abdicate the throne should Hun Sen indicate that was his wish. During the meeting the following day, Hun Sen declined the King’s offer.
On March 23, 1998, King Sihanouk amnestied Prince Ranariddh at Hun Sen’s request, allowing the prince to return from Bangkok and stand in the 1998 election. The return of the prince, many believed, helped Cambodia avoid international condemnation and further isolation of the country.
The constitutional right to grant royal amnesties to prisoners is one of a King’s most important powers.
High-profile royal pardons have included the amnesty of Khmer Rouge foreign minister Ieng Sary that King Sihanouk granted in September 1996 after being pressed to do so by Hun Sen and then-First Prime Minister Prince Ranariddh.
King Sihamoni pardoned SRP President Sam Rainsy in February 2006 at the request of Hun Sen after Sam Rainsy was sentenced to 18 months in prison in 2006 for defaming Hun Sen and Prince Ranariddh.
Article 27 of Cambodia’s Constitution states that the “King shall have the right to grant partial or complete amnesty.”
According to the Ministry of Justice, however, the matter is more complicated.
The ministry’s deputy director of the criminal affairs and commutation department Khy Chhit, interviewed in May 2007, said the King can pardon prisoners only after he receives a request to do so from an official such as the prime minister.
Since May 2007, the Norodom Ranariddh Party has been trying to lobby for another royal pardon for Prince Ranariddh who has been living in self-imposed exile following his sentencing in absentia in 2007 to an 18-month prison term over the disputed selling of the Funcinpec headquarters. The jury is out on whether the current CPP-led government will seek a pardon for Prince Ranariddh.
When political deadlock followed the July 1998 elections as ballot counts were disputed, King Sihanouk called the three main political parties to Siem Reap town for talks in September 1998 that ultimately proved fruitless.
In October 1998 King Sihanouk, despondent over the state of affairs in Cambodia, said in an interview that he would commit suicide if he were not a Buddhist. Continued bickering and fighting among Cambodia’s leadership and lawlessness and social problems meant that, the King said, “the end of my life is full of shame, humiliation and desperation of the national order.”
King Sihanouk has always been adept at using the media to reach the public. He still responds swiftly to the media and posts regular writings in his monthly bulletins and on his personal Web site, where he has defended himself and spoken out against corruption, violence, poverty and his people’s rights and freedom.
According to Julio Jeldres, official biographer of King Sihanouk, the now retired King during his second reign “became the closest thing Cambodia ever had of a national ‘Ombudsman,’ the protector of Cambodia’s Constitution, which enshrined the Cambodian people’s democratic freedoms in an increasingly authoritarian environment.”
After Norodom Sihanouk’s abdication in 2004, the Royal Council of the Throne unanimously elected Prince Sihamoni as the King of Cambodia on October 15, 2004. The new King was crowned in an elaborate coronation ceremony at the Royal Palace on October 29, 2004.
King Sihamoni had been Cambodia’s ambassador to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in Paris since 1993. Trained in dance, music and theater, King Sihamoni is considered a “man of culture” and a patron of the arts by observers. One of the defining details of his reign so far has been his decision to avoid any involvement in politics.
This transition is key to the monarchy’s future survival, according to some observers.
Julio Jeldres believes a change in attitudes towards the monarchy has been taking place since its restoration, which could change its role in Cambodian society and politics and threaten the future of the institution. Jeldres points to the ban on references to the monarchy during the recently held electoral campaign.
“The political elite has been somewhat apprehensive of the loyalty of the rural population of Cambodia and has, therefore, tried to diminish that bond by a concerted campaign to diminish the role played by the monarchy in national affairs,” he wrote in an e-mail.
Jeldres said the monarchy under King Sihamoni continues to play its role as stated in the Constitution.
But he warned: “Much depends on the will of the ruling party on whether the monarchy will continue to exist in Cambodia.”