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.

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