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."

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