Retired King Norodom Sihanouk and Queen Monineath made an unexpected return to Cambodia on Sunday afternoon, touching down at Phnom Penh International Airport after spending more than six months abroad.
King Norodom Sihamoni, Prime Minister Hun Sen and a host of top politicians were on hand to welcome the royal couple at 3 pm.
Flanked by North Korean bodyguards, 84-year-old Norodom Sihanouk appeared lively and in robust health. He greeted well-wishers then stepped into a waiting car without speaking to reporters.
“As usual, the retired King always returns to the country before the Khmer New Year to celebrate the ceremony with the Cambodian people,” said Chea Sokhom, deputy secretary-general for the Permanent Organizing Commission for National and International Ceremonies.
The retired King and the Queen left Cambodia on Sept 2 to seek medical treatment in Beijing.
Their return comes less than a month after Phnom Penh Municipal Court sentenced Norodom Sihanouk’s son Prince Norodom Ranariddh to 18 months in prison in absentia over the sale of Funcinpec’s headquarters.
The Norodom Ranariddh Party will not now ask the retired King to help secure Prince Ranariddh’s return to Cambodia, the prince’s adviser Ok Socheat said. But Ok Socheat expressed hope that the retired King’s arrival would help ensure “national reconciliation.”
National Assembly and CPP Honorary President Heng Samrin pointed out that the retired King is a politically independent figure, and should not become involved in rifts between specific political parties.
“Political parties with disputes should try to reach a compromise by themselves,” he said. “The CPP welcomes the retired King to return to the country and stay with the people.”
Funcinpec Secretary-General Nhiek Bun Chhay was present at the airport, and the party’s Second Deputy President Prince Sisowath Sirirath said Funcinpec is glad to have the retired King back.
SRP leader Sam Rainsy was also part of the welcoming party. He said he hoped that Norodom Sihanouk’s presence will bring hope to victims of land grabbing and deter the rich and powerful from laying claim to their property.
“The retired King’s presence will make [land grabbing] victims feel warm,” Sam Rainsy said. “His presence will make people respect the law.”
The return will likely make the general public feel more confident in Cambodia’s political stability, said Koul Panha, director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections.
The retired King may be in a position to heal rifts between political parties, and to secure Prince Ranariddh’s return, he added.
“If Prince Ranariddh is absent from the [2008 national] election, it will seriously affect the fair competitive environment,” Koul Panha said.