In his missives to the nation in the months leading up to his retirement, King Norodom Sihanouk framed his decision to step down from the throne as the twilight wish of an aging, ailing monarch desiring to live out his final years in peace.
In reality, observers said this month, Norodom Sihanouk’s abdication is the capstone of a storied career of shrewd political maneuvering, allowing him to pick his successor and ensure the continuation of the monarchy while dodging his political opponents.
“He had wanted to be assured of his succession, and his favored successor is his son,” political analyst Lao Mong Hay said. “Perhaps as a way of confirming that succession, he retired.”
Less than two years after his September 1993 reinstatement as King of Cambodia, Norodom Sihanouk was publicly mulling the question of his successor, with indications that he suspected the monarchy could be in a vulnerable position after his death.
In a 1995 interview with The Cambodia Daily’s publisher Bernard Krisher, Norodom Sihanouk outlined several succession scenarios that could occur upon his death.
One of those was a council of electors that would include Prime Minister Hun Sen, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, Senate president and acting Head of State Chea Sim and the two top Buddhist leaders, similar to the Royal Council of the Throne that chose King Norodom Sihamoni on Oct 14.
Yet he also hinted at the possibility that a deadlock in the voting process could stymie the monarchy and install a non-royal head of state in place of a king. The CPP, he said at the time, would play the decisive role in the monarchy’s future. “The CPP will hold the key. Why? Because they are very influential in the administration…. I don’t speak about their popularity but their strength and influence and the role they play in our society. So the king in fact will be elected by the CPP,” he said.
Norodom Sihanouk also brought up the issue of King Sihamoni’s candidacy for the throne. “The Queen, my wife, would like Norodom Sihamoni to be a candidate, but she prefers not to encourage him and he himself is not interested in the kingship…. As he does not want to be king after the death of Sihanouk, so we must exclude him as a candidate.” Norodom Sihanouk at the time said he preferred that Prince Ranariddh succeed him. He later lashed out at rumors that Prince Sihamoni was being considered, although his protests against King Sihamoni’s candidacy grew less ardent over the years.
Though opposition leader Sam Rainsy told reporters after a 1999 meeting with Norodom Sihanouk that the monarch was considering either Prince Sihamoni or Queen Norodom Monineath to succeed him, then-reigning Norodom Sihanouk issued a statement in October 2001 denying he ever publicly stated that King Sihamoni would be the next king and reaffirming his support for Prince Ranariddh.
Though Hun Sen archly denied at the time that he had any intentions of replacing the monarch as the symbolic head of state—“If I become King, how could I go play golf?” he told reporters days after the 2002 commune election—Norodom Sihanouk’s threats to abdicate became more frequent from then on.
In July 2002, Prince Ranariddh announced that he and Norodom Sihanouk’s half-brother Prince Norodom Sirivudh did not wish to be considered for the throne, saying they would prefer to serve the country through politics.
Norodom Sihanouk continued to press the issue of his abdication, complaining repeatedly about his poor health on his Web site and pushing for the creation of a law that would allow the Throne Council to choose his successor. Despite his insistence that the country’s lawmakers attend to the Throne Council, Hun Sen and other lawmakers skirted talk of the King’s eventual death, saying the subject was taboo. The abdication, Lao Mong Hay said, “was a way of forcing the government to do something.”
In July, months after the CPP and Funcinpec’s rejection of the King’s offer to broker talks in North Korea aimed at solving the political deadlock, Norodom Sihanouk said he would abdicate the throne when the National Assembly convened. He later said he would delay the move for two or three months, then agreed to stay on the throne at the request of Supreme Buddhist Patriarch Tep Vong.
The next month he fired off several more threats to abdicate, with no definitive statements on who would succeed him.
But early this month, after receiving a warning from Sam Rainsy that staged anti-Sihanouk protests for which the opposition would be blamed were planned for his return, he finally made good on his promise to relinquish the throne. Immediately, King Sihamoni’s name surfaced as Norodom Sihanouk’s desired heir.
Though Norodom Sihanouk’s title has changed, few believe that his influence on Cambodian politics or the national psyche will wane. King Sihamoni has said that his father will serve as his adviser, and Norodom Sihanouk has written that he will continue to serve Cambodia for the rest of his life “as a (very old) retired public servant.”
“King Sihanouk is a great politician,” said Kek Galabru, founder of the rights group Licadho. “I think that by doing what he did, the monarchy will continue.”