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Cambodia's King Norodom Sihanouk To Bow Out

Cambodia's King Norodom Sihanouk To Bow Out


by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Cambodia's King Norodom Sihanouk, originally crowned in 1941 when Nazi-backed Vichy France controlled his country, said he will abandon his throne, sparking concern over who might replace him.

King Sihanouk, 81, gained immense experience over the years, wining and dining with a myriad of world leaders, most of whom are now dead.

They include France's Charles de Gaulle, India's Jawaharlal Nehru, Sukarno of Indonesia, Egyptian Gamal Abdel Nasser, Mao Zedong and Chou En-lai in China, Yugoslavia's Josip Broz Tito, the Soviet Union's Nikita Khrushchev, Ethiopian Haile Selassie, Armenian Enver Hodja, Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania, and Kim Il Sung of North Korea.

King Sihanouk's announcement, read in the National Assembly on Thursday (Oct. 7), may be a reversible ruse, however, to squeeze concessions from the Cambodia's government, according to some analysts.

The elected government is a fragile coalition shared by iron-fisted Prime Minister Hun Sen and the king's opportunistic son, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, who is National Assembly president.

"I have had the great honor to serve the nation and people for more than half a century," said King Sihanouk's statement, issued from his temporary self-exile in Beijing.

"I am too old now. I cannot continue my mission and activities as king and head of state to serve the needs of the nation any longer. As I am getting old, my body and my pulse is getting weaker.

"It is up to the Royal Throne Council to decide whether Prince Sihamoni, or who else, will be an appropriate successor to Norodom Sihanouk. I ask all compatriots to please allow me to retire," the king said.

"According to a royal message that we have received and read to the National Assembly, the king has abdicated," Prince Ranariddh said on Thursday (Oct. 7).

"The king said [Senate President] Chea Sim will be the acting head of state, and he [Sihanouk] has written that from now on, Norodom Sihanouk is retired," Ranariddh said.

"I hope this is not a permanent abdication," Ranariddh added.

If Sihanouk merely retires, he could later choose to continue his reign, but if he officially abdicates then it would appear he is definite about stepping down, according to some legal interpretations.

Known for his high-pitched voice and "mercurial" behavior, King Sihanouk abdicated in 1955 to allow his father, Norodom Suramarit, to be king.

Sihanouk then became a prince, and a politician, and ruled the country with a heavy hand, trying bloody, Machiavellian moves to prop up or crush various factions.

But a 1970 coup by U.S.-backed General Lon Nol ousted Sihanouk from political power while he was visiting the Soviet Union.

He retaliated by supporting communist Khmer Rouge guerrillas against Lon Nol and the U.S. bombardment of Cambodia during the Vietnam War, and supported communist North Vietnam against American-occupied South Vietnam.

"My own militant support for the [communist] Viet Cong was...no mere gesture. I granted them safeholds on the Cambodia-South Vietnam border and ordered my army to transport Chinese and Soviet arms from Sihanoukville to the Viet Cong bases," Sihanouk wrote in his book titled, "Sihanouk Reminisces".

Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge seized Cambodia and immediately forced all residents to leave the capital Phnom Penh and all other cities overnight, at the start of their 1975-79 "killing fields" regime.

But Sihanouk flew to New York in 1975 and told the United Nations that the Khmer Rouge evacuation of cities was "without bloodshed" and he convinced Cambodian intellectuals, military officers and other in the United States and elsewhere to return home to support the new regime.

When they did, they were executed.

After King Sihanouk's own return, the Khmer Rouge clamped him under house arrest in 1976 and killed several of his relatives.

Vietnam invaded the Southeast Asian country in 1979 and ousted Pol Pot.

In 1982, Sihanouk lent his support to a loose, Khmer Rouge-led, U.S.-financed guerrilla alliance, to end the Vietnamese occupation.

After Vietnam withdrew in 1989 and Cambodia stabilized under a Vietnamese-installed Cambodian government, Sihanouk was crowned as "king and head of state for life" in 1993.

With limited power to "reign but not rule", he contented himself by shuttling to sanctuaries in North Korea and China -- thanking Pyongyang and Beijing for protecting him from "assassination" by Pol Pot during the Khmer Rouge regime.

King Sihanouk also complained of ill health due to long years feasting on French cuisine, and verbally lashed out at Cambodian politicians who kept the country mired in poverty, corruption and violence.

"My own failure to keep both the right and the left at bay proved to be equally costly to both Cambodia and myself," he wrote in his book, published in 1990.

He recently helped set up his own website where he posts critiques, in French and Khmer, about the woeful situation in his devastated homeland.

Born on October 31, 1922 in Phnom Penh, King Sihanouk's influence has dwindled, but he is believed to be popular among older Cambodians.

His retirement or abdication were not expected to destablize the government, however, and the country remained calm immediately after the announcement.

Many Cambodians and foreign analysts predicted the throne would go to one of the king's younger sons, Prince Norodom Sihamoni, a former dancer.

Prince Sihamoni's half-brother, Prince Ranariddh, appeared more intent on political power instead of the largely ceremonial crown.

King Sihanouk's wife, Queen Monineath, may act as a regent while the succession is discussed, they said.

The monarchy does not require a hereditary successor, but a king must have royal blood, which opens the throne to several princes.

Prince Ranariddh, King Sihanouk's eldest son, described the monarch's move as "shocking and very regretful".

**-ENDS-**

Richard S. Ehrlich, a freelance journalist who has reported news from Asia for the past 26 years, is co-author of the non-fiction book, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" -- Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His web page is www.geocities.com/glossograph/

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