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.

/ Current Affairs