Cambodia’s former king to stay influential despite turning 82: analysts

Cambodia’s retired king Norodom Sihanouk marks his 82nd birthday Sunday and despite promises of a hushed retirement is unlikely to bow out of public life as he goes on wielding influence, analysts say.

Given his indefatigable energy and love of the limelight even after more than six decades of flamboyantly treading the international stage, they say it is hard to imagine him retreating.

"I find it very difficult to believe that while there is breath in his body he will not play an active role in some form or another," Australian-based Milton Osborne, who wrote a 1994 biography of Sihanouk, told AFP.

"He would still be talking under several feet of wet concrete," he quipped.

The charismatic former monarch who at first said he and former queen Monineath would retire to a palace near the ancient Angkor Wat temple complex, has already abandoned those plans to instead stay with the new king in Phnom Penh.

King Norodom Sihamoni, a 51-year-old ex-ballet dancer and cultural diplomat, who unlike his father has little interest in politics and has spent most of his life pursuing a career in the arts, was sworn in as monarch on Friday.

"He needs to ask for recommendations because he lacks experience. He needs us to explain to him about national and international affairs," Sihanouk said on his arrival back in Cambodia from Beijing with his son earlier this month.

Sihanouk has been at the heart of Cambodian politics since he was first placed on the throne by the French in 1941. He announced he was stepping down on October 7, stunning his Southeast Asian kingdom.

In the intervening years, Sihanouk steered Cambodia to independence, abdicated to enter politics, was key in bringing warring factions to peace after the devastating 1970s Khmer Rouge regime and retook the throne.

Most recently, he has maintained a presence in cyberspace, churning out daily missives in hand-written French that have acidly criticised Cambodian politicians and opined on everything from soccer to US presidential contender Senator John Kerry.

Although he cited failing health and national stability as reasons for his abdication, the move by the always-shrewd Sihanouk also allowed him to secure the appointment to the throne of his favoured heir, Sihamoni.

And while Sihanouk’s tutorage is undoubtedly needed to equip the king with the skills he needs to navigate the treacherous world of Cambodian politics, it will also allow him to continue to exert influence behind closed doors.

"I would think that we will see a different Sihanouk. He will still be active but behind the scenes as a teacher and mentor to King Sihamoni," Verghese Mathews, a former Singaporean ambassador to Cambodia, told AFP.

"Sihanouk is a proud man and a man of history — he will make sure that he is proved right about Sihamoni."

Adding fuel to speculation that Sihanouk will continue to stir controversy has been the reemergence this month of his mysterious French pen pal, Ruom Ritt, whom many suspect is the former king himself.

Letters posted on his website — using easily recognisable pseudonyms for those involved — have described a possible plot to topple King Sihamoni on Sihanouk’s death and replace him with Prince Norodom Ranariddh.

After an outburst by Ranariddh, Sihamoni’s half-brother and the top royalist politician, an equally mysterious statement from the former king’s secretary backtracked over the allegations.

Technology trumps Cambodia’s royal portrait artist

The dozens of identical photographic portraits of Cambodia’s new King Norodom Sihamoni looming over the capital’s boulevards to mark his coronation have left royal artist Kimsong Narykun wringing his hands.

Technology has trumped 40-year-old Narykun, who works daily in a fan-cooled studio equipped with just one small easel set on a rattan mat, a stone’s throw from the spire-topped palace and a park ringed by six of the portraits alone.

"I haven’t yet painted any pictures of King Norodom Sihamoni — all the portraits of him have been printed using computers," he told AFP, pausing from his work on a likeness of a young Cambodian soldier.

The portrait painter’s style caught the eye of royal palace officials in 1995 and over the next six years they commissioned 10 huge oil portraits of former king Norodom Sihanouk and other top royal figures, he said.

The oil canvases, stretching as high as six metres (20 feet) and created by working from photographs, adorned the royal palace exterior and numerous official buildings, and inspired the national assembly to order a further 40 portraits.

While there is no official royal artist, Narykun believes he is the only artist to have worked on palace portraits recently — although his commissions dried up after his last national assembly order was completed last year.

"The pictures generated by computer are good," he conceded. "But if we compare them with portraits painted by hand, using an artist’s power, energy and intelligence, than these others have more expression and depth."

Narykun earned under 1,000 dollars for each of the palace orders. He typically earns around 40 dollars for an ordinary commission, which takes around three days to complete.

"I want the leaders of our national institutions to think more about art created by artists," he said, adding he was hopeful that King Sihamoni may be sympathetic to artists’ plight.

The new monarch, who is in the midst of a three-day coronation, was Cambodia’s ambassador to the UN’s cultural agency in Paris for 11 years. He quit his post just weeks before his appointment as king earlier this month.

"King Sihamoni likes art, so he will think about the painted versus printed paintings," he said.

Cambodia’s top artists were among those wiped out by the murderous 1970s Khmer Rouge regime, which oversaw the deaths of up to two million people, and their community is struggling to recover in the destitute Southeast Asian nation.

"In Cambodia, they don’t think painting is useful for the country. They believe painting portraits is just for fun, or entertainment. But pictures are priceless," Narykun said.

A royal palace official charged with erecting the photographs of the king around the city told AFP Friday’s coronation was announced too soon for any paintings to be ordered — and photos were cheaper and a better likeness anyway.

He hinted that the days of royal portraiture could be over in Cambodia.

"Now there is new equipment available to make printed portraits in Phnom Penh," he said when asked whether any orders would be placed with Narykun.

But Narykun still harbours a glimmer of hope: a government client asked him for a quote on a two-by-three metre portrait of the new king last week.

But the client hasn’t yet given the green light for the 400-dollar job.

"Maybe they’ll just use printed ones, they’re cheaper," he sighed.

Cambodia’s new king faces baptism of fire into politics

The totally inexperienced Prince Norodom Sihamoni, an ex-ballet dancer named Cambodia’s new king Thursday, faces a baptism of fire when he is plunged into the kingdom’s infamously treacherous political world.

The 51-year-old prince, who has spent years abroad pursuing a career in the arts, is largely unknown at home and will have few people to draw on to counter the ever-increasing dominance of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

The charismatic and larger-than-life Norodom Sihanouk, who has sparred with Hun Sen and other leaders during his lengthy stint in the palace, announced his abdication last week.

As many of the 81-year-old’s 13 million subjects hoped he would reconsider, lawmakers were sent scrambling to enable legislation allowing a nine-member throne council to choose his successor.

Cambodia’s 1993 constitution provides for a non-hereditary monarchy and stipulates only that the next king must be aged at least 30 and be from one of three royal lineages, creating dozens of eligible princes.

The politically raw Sihamoni, who is expected to be coronated on October 29, will continue a now largely symbolic monarchy which stretches back centuries to the period that produced the world-renowned Angkor Wat.

He faces an enormous challenge in acclimatising to the murky world of Cambodian politics. Under Sihanouk, the palace has reined in corrupt politicians only because of the near god-like respect he enjoys.

He could in particular face a tough time with the premier, whom critics say would prefer to rule a republic.

"He does not have any political experience, and even if he must be an apolitical king, one should have some minimum of experience. I hope he appoints good advisors," said Julio Jeldres, Sihanouk’s official biographer.

However, he noted, Sihamoni has one major asset.

"This is that Sihanouk will be there, and as such, he’ll be able to ask him his opinion on this or that question," Jeldres said.

The retired king has already promised he and Queen Monineath would do everything possible to help Sihamoni.

Sihamoni’s cousin Oum Daravuth told AFP the prince has been groomed for kingship from a young age, even though he is only reluctantly coming around to the idea of being king.

"He always stayed very close to his parents, from when he was young, so he was educated well," he said.

"No political school can compare to the king … he has been involved in politics for more than 60 years. And since he was a child until now, he has been close to the king, so he will understand well the political situation."

He described Sihamoni as a modest perfectionist, a "simple person involved in pursuing the national interest, like his father".

The prince, who remains unmarried and childless, has spent the majority of his life abroad, moving to Prague to complete high school and training there as a classical ballet dancer.

He has also been his father’s private secretary, taught dance, been a choreographer, made films, and from 1993 until last month, was Cambodia’s ambassador to UNESCO in Paris.

For many, this is to his advantage, as he remains free from the influence of any political party or interest group.

Cambodians, who expressed dismay and sadness at Sihanouk’s abdication, appear willing to give Sihamoni a chance.

"If when he takes the throne he helps people and helps to protect our territory like his father Norodom Sihanouk, I will support him," 59-year-old cyclo driver Muong Met told AFP.

For many urban Cambodians struggling to survive in their impoverished nation, marred by nearly three decades of conflict that only ended six years ago, the manoeuvrings at the palace have minimal impact.

"The only thing that I need is for my country to become prosperous in the future," said a 36-year-old dried fish vendor at Phnom Penh’s bustling Central Market. "Whether we have a king or not, we are still the same."

Cambodia’s Prince Sihamoni — the dancer destined to be king

Prince Norodom Sihamoni, the man expected to be Cambodia’s next king, is a clasically-trained ballet dancer who has spent much of his adult life abroad pursuing a career in the arts.

Inheriting his father’s King Norodom Sihanouk’s artistic streak, the 51-year-old Sihamoni has pursued a love of dance, music and cinema, and is known to be reluctant to take on the largely symbolic role of king.

Julio Jeldres, Sihanouk’s official biographer, said that until now Sihamoni has been more interested in Khmer art than Cambodian politics.

The prince was born in 1953 to today’s Queen Monineath, the eldest of two sons she bore to Sihanouk. Sihamoni is a combination of the first two syllables of his parents’ first names. They are both known to be devoted to him.

His artistic career was launched at the age of 14 when he took the title role in the film "The Little Prince", one of his father’s many film projects. It was further grounded in his study of Cambodian classical dance.

Sihamoni’s cousin Oum Daravuth describes the prince, who is little known in Cambodia, as being extremely studious as a teenager.

"He would never come to discos or bars with me, he’d just stay at home with his parents, reading books," he told AFP.

In 1970 the prince completed high school in Prague — Cambodia then had close relations with the Eastern European bloc — and the next year began studying dance, music and theatre at the National Conservatory and the Academy of Musical Art, writing a thesis on Cambodian fine arts.

He moved to Pyongyang in North Korea to study cinematography, but his studies were abruptly cut short in April 1976 when he was summoned back to Phnom Penh.

Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge had come to power a year earlier, beginning a rule that oversaw the deaths of up to two million Cambodians from execution, torture, overwork, starvation and disease.

Sihamoni joined his parents and other members of the royal family under "palace arrest", where he helped them grow vegetables and fruits in the palace grounds and was kept largely oblivious to the bloodshed outside.

When Vietnamese forces were poised to overthrow Pol Pot in 1979, Sihamoni was spirited to China along with his parents. The prince served there and in Pyongyang as the king’s private secretary.

Jeldres said this period contributed towards Sihamoni becoming his father’s closest son, and he is the only one of his children whom he addresses using the more colloquial ‘tu’ when conversing in French.

In 1981 the francophone prince travelled to Paris and became a professor of classical dance. He formed his own troupe of dancers, Ballet Deva, which performed pieces he choreographed himself, and he made two ballet films.

In 1993 he was appointed Cambodia’s ambassador to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), in Paris, a post he held until mid-2004 and used to work towards halting the exodus of Khmer antiquities from his homeland, according to Jeldres.

He made rare trips to Cambodia or Beijing to see his parents.

The prince, who is unmarried and has no children, has continued to choreograph ballets. He is fluent in French, Khmer and Czech.

One palace insider told AFP the prince has an artistic temperament.

"He can be very difficult. One day he can be pleasant with you and the following day, not say hello. He is an artist."

His cousin Daravuth, who said the prince was living in a modest Paris apartment until he relocated to Beijing to be with his parents, described him as hard-working and frugal.

"He doesn’t have ambition for money or property, he is not a materialist … From his childhood, through to his work as Cambodia’s ambassador to UNESCO, he has been a perfectionist," he said.

Top Cambodian leader to beg” abdicated king to stay on throne”

Cambodia’s national assembly president left for China Saturday to beg King Norodom Sihanouk to change his mind about abdicating, but left open the option of a new monarch being appointed.

Prince Norodom Ranariddh, 81-year-old Sihanouk’s son, told reporters he would "kneel down to beg His Majesty the King to continue to lead us as the greatest king of Cambodia".

Sihanouk’s decision Thursday to step down stunned Cambodians and left his family and political leaders scrambling to coax him into retaking the position that he has held on and off for more than 60 years.

Ranariddh, who along with his half-brother Prince Norodom Sihamoni is a contender to succeed the king, said that Prime Minister Hun Sen also wanted Sihanouk to stay on.

"But the prime minister also said that according to his opinion, he believes the king may not return (to Cambodia). So if the king feels firm on this, there is only one option — to convene the throne council," he said.

The ageing and ailing Sihanouk has spent most of his time in Beijing since going into self-imposed exile in January during a previous political crisis and has been receiving medical treatment for a stomach complaint.

The Cambodian monarchy is not hereditary and the constitution says only that a throne council must choose a king aged more than 30 who comes from one of three royal bloodlines.

Cambodia’s national assembly met Friday to rush through a law outlining how the nine-member council should appoint a successor to Sihanouk.

Hun Sen is in Hanoi attending a summit of Asian and European leaders and is expected to return Sunday.

Ranariddh said the prime minister told him that President Jacques Chirac, of Cambodia’s former colonial ruler France, who was also in Hanoi, was among those wanting Sihanouk to stay on.

"Hun Sen told me that Jacques Chirac also wants the king to continue on the throne, so this is a point we all want, and the world would applaud," he said.

Ranariddh, 60, said he had received a letter from the king in Beijing saying that he had stuck to his decision.

But he said the king may be "delaying" publishing the letter because the throne council law had finally been passed, as he had demanded and 11 years after Cambodia’s constitution directed it to do so.

"I think it may be a sign that the king might reconsider," one political observer told AFP.

Observers and diplomats remain divided over the likelihood of the famously unpredictable Sihanouk changing his mind. Some believe the drama of the past few days is a ploy to ensure his favoured successor — widely tipped to be Sihamoni — is installed on the throne.

Ranariddh, who has said he does not want to be king and publicly supported his half-brother to be crowned, will also meet with Sihamoni, 51, who is in Beijing with his father.

"As far as I know, Sihamoni is still insisting that he will not take the throne," he said.

The trained dancer recently gave up his post as Cambodia’s ambassador to UNESCO, sparking speculation he had begun to be groomed for the position.

According to the law passed Friday, the throne council, which is effectively controlled by Hun Sen, must approve by simple majority a successor within seven days of the king abdicating.

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy meanwhile defended from abroad a letter he wrote warning Sihanouk against returning home as planned last Thursday, after critics blamed him for the abdication.

He warned the king of potential "unrest" and was summoned to explain the letter by the interior ministry. But Rainsy left for Thailand and party officials said he may have moved on to France.