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.