The US Embassy was thrilled when King Norodom Sihamoni was crowned as his father’s successor in 2004, seeing his accession as an opportunity for the US to “open a new chapter” in its relations with the Cambodian monarchy, a trove of just-released diplomatic cables show.
The travails of the royal family inspired embassy officials to employ some of their more colorful diplomatic prose, especially when discussing the trials and tribulations of Prince Norodom Ranariddh. The cables reveal a distrust of the “mercurial” Prince Ranariddh, whom US diplomats and their sources portray as a petulant man who resented being passed over as King.
“Cambodia’s royal family is a tragedy, comedy and melodrama all rolled into one that could have provided grist for at least a half dozen Shakespeare plays,” said a May 2006 cable signed by former Deputy Chief of Mission Mark Storella.
The US has long had a rocky relationship with retired King Norodom Sihanouk, who was frequently at odds with the superpower during his decades-long involvement in Cambodian politics.
When, in October 2004, Norodom Sihanouk announced he would step down as head of state, the US Embassy was immediately skeptical “given Sihanouk’s track record of threats to resign, which extend back decades.” The embassy posited that Norodom Sihanouk hoped he would be begged to reconsider.
A week later, though, when the abdication was official, the embassy concluded that Norodom Sihanouk had made the decision because he was unhappy with his growing political marginalization.
“It is striking that the Cambodian people have shown little reaction to Sihanouk’s decision to step down after 63 years at the center of Cambodian political life,” the embassy noted.
On the day of King Sihamoni’s coronation, a long cable was sent out entitled “Cambodia’s Man Who Won’t Be King: Ranariddh’s Snit Fit,” detailing Prince Ranariddh’s “childish and petulant” attempts to steal the spotlight from his half-brother, Sihamoni. After Prince Ranariddh kicked up a fuss over not being allowed to enter the palace through a special gate, even members of his own Funcinpec Party told US Embassy officials they were disgusted with him. “Rather than raising his stature, he is increasingly making himself a laughing stock,” the embassy observed of Prince Ranariddh.
The cables also express concern that a frustrated Prince Ranariddh might one day make a play for power with his half-brother, who the embassy describes as apolitical and “relatively pliable.”
Based on the cables, someone at the embassy was quite obviously smitten with Sihamoni, who was described as “quite regal indeed,” with “the bearing and open spirit of a King.” One cable even singles out the new King’s “calm, well-modulated voice,” which, the embassy official opines, is “a welcome relief” from “the high-pitched nasal tones of his father.”
“He projects an aura of calm that has in short order restored some of the dignity to the throne,” the embassy said, going on to praise him for breaking with precedent and using Khmer bodyguards rather than the “gruff” North Koreans preferred by Norodom Sihanouk.
The cables note that Sihamoni, a French citizen with strong ties to the Czech Republic, apparently bore no strong views about the US, providing an opportunity for the US to improve its relationship with the palace and “open a new chapter” with the monarchy.
The US seemed particularly relieved that King Sihamoni appeared to have no interest in politics, unlike his father. This is borne out by the cables themselves, which mention King Sihamoni only in passing after 2004.
Prince Sisowath Thomico, an adviser to retired King Sihanouk, said yesterday that the palace was unsurprised by the opinions contained in the leaked US cables, and uninterested in them.
“The US has never liked the father of His Majesty the King,” Prince Thomico said.
“There is nothing exciting and nothing to admire [in the cables.]”
He added that US-palace relations had not improved since King Sihamoni took the throne, due in part to the US’ failure to invite the King to the US for an official visit.
Pen Sangha, a spokesman for the Norodom Ranariddh Party, disputed the cables description of Prince Ranariddh’s personality.
“He is a law professor and a good leader who has good behavior to educate his students,” Mr Sangha said, adding that Prince Ranariddh was “a kingmaker” who had no desire to sit on the throne himself.
“He just wants to follow in the King Father’s steps by staying close to the people and participating in politics.”