The King rarely makes public remarks these days. So when Norodom Sihamoni on Monday addressed 400 prisoners who were released in a ceremony at late King Father Norodom Sihanouk’s cremation, his words offered rare insight into his position in the country.
While only the King has the constitutional power to grant amnesty, it was Prime Minister Hun Sen that King Sihamoni told the freed prisoners to express their gratitude to.
“Thank you to the government of Cambodia and Samdech Hun Sen for helping you to get your freedom again,” he said in a speech at the cremation site, before handing out packages of clothing, a mosquito net and $100 to each prisoner.
It was not the only time during the days leading up to the cremation ceremony, which started with a royal procession on February 1, that reflected the comprehensive nature of the ruling party’s control over the events that have taken place to mark the former King’s death—and the monarch’s legacy.
Some observers say the CPP has used the cremation—which was watched by hoards of people who flooded into the city for the event, and broadcast on every one of the nation’s television channels—as a way of consolidating its hold on the country.
One of the King Father’s requests for his funeral was that things be kept inconspicuous, according to Prince Sisowath Thomico, spokesman for the Royal Cabinet.
“As far as the King Father is concerned,” Prince Thomico said, “one of his wishes was to organize a humble and modest funeral so that people would not spend too much money.”
But early on in the preparations for the funeral, it became clear that neither the King Father nor the Royal Family would get a say in how Cambodia would bid farewell to the hero of the country’s independence from France in 1953.
“The Royal Family never organized anything,” said Prince Thomico of the dozens of ceremonies, processions and gatherings leading up to the late King Father’s cremation on February 4.
In December, Mr. Hun Sen announced that the cremation site at Veal Mean, the park in front of the National Museum, would cost $1.2 million in public funds. It later turned out that the firm contracted to build it, Vispan, was owned by the daughter of Royal Palace Minister Kong Sam Ol, the very government—and CPP —official charged with overseeing the project.
No less elaborate than the gold- and burgundy-colored building that now fills Veal Mean was the February 1 procession that delivered the late King Father’s body to the cremation site.
The King Father’s body was carried in a golden casket on one of four motorized floats—also painted gold—that ferried Royal Family members and CPP officials along the 6 km route.
Just as striking was the sheer number of government personnel in the parade. Almost everyone in the procession, about 3,000 according to estimates from the funeral’s planning committee, was wearing some sort of government uniform, save representatives of the country’s ethnic minorities.
Behind the flag-bearers at the front of the procession came members of Cambodia’s military and police force. There were representatives of government ministries and members of the Red Cross, Scouts and other CPP-aligned youth groups.
On one of the golden floats at the center of the parade sat the three CPP officials who would flank King Sihamoni and Queen Mother Norodom Monineath throughout much of the ceremony around the King Father’s cremation: National Assembly President Heng Samrin, Mr. Sam Ol and Mr. Hun Sen.
As the King and Queen Mother stepped out of the Royal Palace to join the procession and accompany the King Father’s body to the cremation site, they were closely followed by Mr. Hun Sen and his wife, Bun Rany.
The scale of the King Father’s funeral, according to historian Henri Locard, was not only an effort to seize the popular momentum behind the monarchy, but a bid by the prime minister to combine his legacy with that of the late King Father.
“The King [Father] had such a grand funeral to an extent because Hun Sen wants to appear as the heir to Sihanouk,” Mr. Locard said. “Sihanouk is the father of independence. Hun Sen is the father of the rebirth. The parallels are striking.”
For the past week, the country’s state-owned and government-aligned television networks have run documentary footage of Sihanouk-era projects in agriculture and manufacturing between regular news reports touting the CPP’s own accomplishments in developing the country.
“Prime Minister Hun Sen wants to show the link between the development during today’s regime and the Sihanouk regime,” said Sok Touch, a political analyst and academic at the Royal Academy of Cambodia.
“If a previous regime has done road construction, they have done that too. If a previous regime has done irrigation, they do it. Previous regimes built houses for people. They build brick houses too,” he said.
However, the vast majority of the news reports last week showed CPP officials mourning their deceased former King.
But the very public reverence of CPP officials for the monarchy, according to political analyst Lao Mong Hay, has not been reflected in their treatment of the present King.
“If our prime minister and ruling party were sincere royalists, they should observe the Constitution and provisions on the role of our King, provisions that would enhance our King’s status as a strong symbol, to reinforce his incarnation as national unity, and help him to pay visits to different places and meet his people,” he said.
For historian David Chandler, the grandeur of the cremation ceremony may have been, in part, an authentic expression of respect for the King Father that Mr. Hun Sen felt he could not show while Norodom Sihanouk was still alive and a threat to his power.
“As Cambodia’s de facto chief of state, Hun Sen wanted to make sure that the ceremonies were correct and lavish. He was saying farewell to a formidable former rival, and was honoring Sihanouk’s place in Cambodian history,” he said. “Sihanouk would have taken the respect as a signal to do more, and as a sign of weakness.”
Regarding King Sihamoni’s reign, Mr. Chandler said: “Sihamoni’s apolitical stance is in fact just what the current institution demands.”
King Sihamoni is widely believed to have been chosen as his father’s successor over his more political half-brother Norodom Ranariddh because he would be relatively pliable.
“I see no interest on [Hun Sen’s] part in preserving the monarchy as such, but because Sihamoni poses no immediate or long term threat, I see no move on [Hun Sen’s] part to do away with it,” Mr. Chandler said.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said that it was Mr. Hun Sen himself who facilitated things so that then-exiled Sihanouk could return to Cambodia following the civil war.
“The prime minister brought the King [home] in the ’90s for national unity,” Mr. Siphan said. “We respect the monarchy.”
However, he noted, the Constitution stipulates that the King is not involved in politics.
“We separate power from the royalty. A number of politicians, they try to manipulate the King,” he said. “They wish him to play a role as prime minister…even though it’s [inscribed] in the Constitution that they [monarchs] have to be neutral.”
With national elections approaching in July, Mr. Touch, the political analyst, noted that Mr. Hun Sen has been joined by members of the opposition and members of the royalist parties in leveraging the popularity of the late King Father to further their own cause.
“Politicians always say they will protect the monarchy,” Mr. Touch said. “[Mr. Hun Sen’s] words bring him a lot of benefit since the people love the King Father so much.”
(Additional reporting by Neou Vannarin and Kate Bartlett)
© 2013, Colin Meyn. All rights reserved.