In the days of Indochina, the French administrators, in search of a label to describe ceremonies held on the King’s day of birth, called them birthday.
They cannot be blamed for assuming that; like for birthdays in Western countries, they were celebrating the King having aged one more year, said Ang Chou-lean, an ethnologist and historical anthropology teacher at the Royal University of Fine Arts.
But in fact, unlike Western-style birthdays that commemorate the past, or the years a person has so far lived, the King’s day-of-birth ceremonies point toward the future, he said.
They are an occasion for people to wish their King a long and happy life in the years to come, Ang Choulean said.
Those ceremonies have always been reserved for the King, and Cambodians themselves have never celebrated their own day of birth, he said.
However the custom of Wes-tern birthdays is now growing in the country, imported by Cam-bodians who have lived in France and the US, Ang Choulean said.
Celebrations are expected throughout Cambodia this weekend to honor King Norodom Sihamoni, who was born May 14, 1953.
At the Royal Palace, more than 50 monks will chant for the King’s prosperity in ceremonies that will blend Buddhist and Brahman rituals, said Kang Ken, chief of the Brahman priests whose presence at the palace can be traced back a millennium to Angkorian times.
Government officials in the 24 provinces and municipalities have been asked to organize local festivities and to send their best wishes to King Sihamoni, who acceded to the throne less than seven months ago, said Chea Kean, deputy secretary general for palace administration.
The 24 governors have been invited to take part in the celebrations at the palace, said
Buddhist monk Oknha Nou Vann. Sched-uled events include fireworks on Saturday night, Chea Kean said.
Praying for the King’s well-being also means praying for the country’s welfare since both are closely linked in Cambodians’ concept of royalty.
As Cambodian writers from the 15th century through the 1930s illustrated, most people never imagined the country’s social structure without a king, said Khing Hoc Dy, researcher at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris and the author of numerous anthologies on Cambodian literature.
Cambodia without a king would have been “a herd without a shepherd, unattended, and doomed,” he said.
Even today, most Cambodians see the King as one of the country’s immutable symbols.
Always deified and associated with a supernatural figure in literature, he nonetheless remained a human being bound by Buddhist principles, Khing Hoc Dy said.
Generous, he had to use his wealth and sacrifice all for the good of his people; a moral man, he had to refrain from destroying life, stealing or lying; and in his administration, he could not oppose the will of the people, he said.
More than morality was at stake in the King’s conduct, explained historian Alain Forest in his 1980 book “Le Cambodge et la colonisation francaise” on the first decades of French colonization in Cambodia.
“On his probity and moral greatness depended people’s happiness since the harmonious rhythm of dry and rainy (seasons), the thriving of crops, abundance or famine, peace or war depended on them,” he wrote.
Unlike Western monarchies in which kings’ right to the throne is not related to the well-being of their people, “ensuring the permanent good of his subjects, such is the King’s reason for living which shows, in the eyes of people, his sacred nature and his legitimacy.”
People believed that the King could communicate with spirits and invisible powers, and could master the elements, Forest said.
On Cambodia’s Royal Insignia, two aruna, or mythical lions, each hold a Preah Svatchat, multi-layered parasols representing the nine directions on earth and in the sky—in fact the universe—over which the King reigns, said Sum Sinoeum, plastic arts teacher at the Royal University of Fine Arts.
This symbolism has extended to holding a distinctive parasol—gold today—over the head of the King, he said.
In times of peace and prosperity, the King’s absolute authority would go unquestioned, and total obeisance seen as his due, Forest said.
But drought, floods or political crisis could weaken his position since this showed the King failing in his duties, he said. “As soon as the King no longer handed out benefits, as soon as he no longer controlled the elements, for instance, people who, until then, had had to trust him, could rethink their confidence in him, which was proven ill placed.”
Based on this logic, the turmoil that followed the end of the Angkorian era, as princes fought each other for the throne amidst civil unrest, can be seen as a nearly official system to replace monarchs who have lost their legitimacy, Forest said.
With this system, the King as an institution remains sacred while a ruler’s claim to the throne can be questioned.
In stories featuring deplorable kings, writers of the 18th and 19th centuries often put the blame on palace advisors for rulers’ regrettable acts, Khing Hoc Dy said.
They often mention kings toppled from the throne for having listened to their advisors, he said.
Even today, some Cambodians attribute to his advisors the controversial actions of then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk in the 1960s.
Feuds over the throne faded away with the 19th century, and it is a Council of the Throne that designated King Sihamoni as the country’s constitutional monarch when King Sihanouk, his father, retired last year.
Today, the King may reign but does not rule, as retired King Sihanouk often points out, but he remains the special person Cambodians turn to in the last resort, bringing their plea for help to the palace’s doors when all else has failed. The belief that the King can conjure unseen forces still lingers among some people.