When the royal limousine pulled up to the Independence Monument on Saturday morning, it was not King Norodom Sihanouk who stepped out but his son Prince Norodom Sihamoni—stunning the officials, diplomats and city residents who had gathered to celebrate the 49th anniversary of Cambodia’s independence from France.
“We saw Prince Sihamoni presiding over everything just as the King normally would,” one diplomat said on Sunday.
The move fueled speculation that King Sihanouk was symbolically appointing a successor.
“Frankly speaking, it seems like the King wants to give some kind of hint to Cambodia and his people,” the diplomat said.
But King Sihanouk strenuously denied these kinds of interpretations in a two-page-long letter dated Saturday and apparently written Saturday evening. “I have no ‘candidate’ for the Cambodian Throne,” he wrote.
In the letter, the King said he decided not to attend the ceremony because the country’s officials and civil servants had worked so hard to put on last week’s Asean summits that they deserved a rest.
The King didn’t want to oblige Cambodia’s exhausted top officials to attend a state ceremony on a Saturday.
Prime Minister Hun Sen, Senate President Chea Sim, National Assembly President Prince Norodom Ranariddh and other top political leaders were all absent.
The King’s letter also states he had few choices in selecting a representative.
“Unlike the royal Princes and Princesses of Thailand, our ‘great’ Khmer princes and princesses, with the exception of Norodom Yuvaneath, Norodom Sihamoni and (Princess) Sisowath Pongneary, have chosen to participate in politics and to belong to a political party,” the letter states.
Out of these three candidates, King Sihanouk said he chose Prince Sihamoni because “Norodom Yuvaneath and Sisowath Pongneary have already represented me many times in various ceremonies.
“Norodom Sihamoni who works in France has had very few occasions to represent me. And given his always good behavior and his total loyalty to his father, I rewarded him by choosing him to represent me on this important day.”
In addition, the King noted, “Many of my compatriots (People, ‘Officials,’ Youth) as well as certain foreign diplomats have expressed a wish to ‘get to know better’ Norodom Sihamoni, son of the very popular and very esteemed Queen Monineath.”
Prince Sihamoni, 49, lives in Paris, where he has served as Cambodia’s ambassador to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization since 1993. Earlier this year, Prince Ranariddh said both he and Funcinpec Secretary-General Prince Norodom Sirivudh would support Prince Sihamoni for the throne.
Observers say Sihamoni is a front-runner because, as a cultural official with no party affiliation, he is not politically offensive.
In addition, as one of only two children of King Sihanouk and Queen Norodom Monineath, he symbolizes the union of the royal couple—an equation spelled out in his name: “Siha”nouk plus “Moni”neath.
Under the Constitution, succession is up to a nine-member Throne Council composed of political and religious leaders, not the King.
The King’s letter ends with another in a series of increasingly defiant statements insisting he will stay on the throne.
“As for ‘my abdication,’ it will take place the day that the majority plus one of the members of the National Assembly, elected by the Cambodian People, ask me to abdicate,” King Sihanouk wrote.
“I am not clinging to the throne but I am equally not abdicating, for I could not be responsible for what would happen to Cambodia in the ‘post-abdication-of-Norodom-Sihanouk’ period.”
King Sihanouk celebrated his 80th birthday on Oct 31.