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King Norodom Sihanouk's Succession In Cambodia

King Norodom Sihanouk's Succession In Cambodia

by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Cambodia's King Norodom Sihanouk, originally crowned in 1941 when Nazi-backed Vichy France controlled Indochina, said he will leave the throne and allow his son, former dancer Prince Norodom Sihamoni, to replace him.

Born in 1953, and educated in Prague and North Korea, Prince Sihamoni has been based in Paris since the 1970s.

A trained dancer, he recently finished as Cambodia's representative to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Prince Sihamoni was "a neutral person not engaged in politics, and nonpartisan," the king was quoted by Associated Press as saying.

King Sihanouk promised to help his son "fulfill his duty successfully as a king for the nation and the people, like me, his father".

The name Sihamoni unites the first syllables of his parents' names: King Sihanouk and the king's current wife, Queen Monineath. He is their only surviving son.

King Sihanouk said his voluntary departure was due to ill health.

He has suffered diabetes, heart problems and colon cancer, and his announcement was apparently timed to confirm a successor before King Sihanouk's eventual death.

The Senate agreed on Monday (Oct. 11) to convene a "throne council" comprised of political and Buddhist leaders, to select a successor. The National Assembly approved the move last week.

Cambodia's monarchy does not require hereditary succession, but a king must have royal blood.

King Sihanouk cannot appoint a successor, but can influence the nine-member council which, under the constitution, selects a new monarch seven days after the king dies, abdicates, or is incapacitated.

That deadline means the next king must be named by Oct. 14.

The council is dominated by iron-fisted Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former military officer under Pol Pot's communist Khmer Rouge.

Hun Sen has had testy relations with King Sihanouk, though they often compromise.

Hun Sen apparently approves of Prince Sihamoni because the new monarch would be politically inexperienced and content as a figurehead.

In a crunch, Queen Monineath, could act as a symbolic regent while succession is discussed, but a constitutional amendment would be required.

"I have had the great honor to serve the nation and people for more than half a century," King Sihanouk, 81, said in a statement, issued from temporary self-exile in Beijing and read in the National Assembly on Oct. 7.

"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.

Prince Sihamoni's wily half-brother, Prince Ranariddh, was eligible but appeared more intent on holding onto power -- and continuing his heated opposition against Hun Sen -- rather than wear the ceremonial crown.

A third royal, Prince Norodom Sirivudh, was also eligible but not considered likely to become king.

Prince Sirivudh was a foreign minister and later headed a think-tank, but was convicted along with Prince Ranariddh in the 1990s for conspiring against Hun Sen.

After the much-criticized trial, both men received amnesties from King Sihanouk, with Hun Sen's approval.

King Sihanouk will be a tough act for 51-year-old Prince Sihamoni to follow.

Born on October 31, 1922 in Phnom Penh, the king gained immense experience wining and dining 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.

Known for his high-pitched voice and "mercurial" behavior, King Sihanouk was crowned in 1941 at the age 18, blessed by French colonialists who imagined he would be pliable.

During World War Two, Japan occupied Cambodia, kicked out the Nazi-backed Vichy French and declared the country "independent" under King Sihanouk.

After Japan lost the war and withdrew, King Sihanouk asked the French to return to Cambodia.

But Vietnamese communist leader Ho Chi Minh battled the French in Vietnam, inspiring a young Pol Pot to start Cambodia's communist Khmer Rouge to help oust France from Indochina, which included Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

Ho Chi Minh's army defeated the French in 1954 at Dien Bein Phu, Vietnam, resulting in a Geneva conference which awarded King Sihanouk control over independent Cambodia.

Seeking political power, King Sihanouk abdicated in 1955 to allow his father, Norodom Suramarit, to be king.

Sihanouk became prime minister and prince, and ruled with bloody, Machiavellian moves to prop up or crush various factions.

He angered Washington by opposing America's Vietnam War in which the U.S. tried, and failed, to stop communism's expansion after France's defeat.

Sihanouk supported communist North Vietnam against U.S.-occupied South Vietnam.

"My own militant support for the [communist] Viet Cong 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".

A 1970 coup by U.S.-backed General Lon Nol toppled Sihanouk while he visited the Soviet Union.

Sihanouk, in exile in China, retaliated by supporting Khmer Rouge guerrillas and North Vietnamese troops against Lon Nol and the Americans.

In 1973, U.S. President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger unleashed a massive "secret" bombardment of Cambodia, until the U.S. Congress forced their killing to stop.

When communist fighters in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos achieved victory in 1975, Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge immediately ordered all residents to leave Phnom Penh and all other cities overnight, at the start of their "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 others in the United States and elsewhere to return to support the new regime.

When they did, they were killed -- alongside more than one million other Cambodians -- from the Khmer Rouge's policies of mass executions, enslavement, torture and starvation.

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

Vietnam invaded 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, followed by U.N.-supervised elections in 1993, Sihanouk was crowned "king and head of state for life" to "reign but not rule".

He shuttled to sanctuaries in North Korea and China and 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.

King Sihanouk's influence dwindled, but he is popular among many of Cambodia's 11 million citizens, especially the elderly.

Among the king's achievements are a large number of feature films which he directed, mostly portraying idyllic, romantic tales before Pol Pot's regime.

He also enjoyed entertaining guests by climbing onstage and singing, often in French-accented English, songs such as Stevie Wonder's, "I Just Called To Say I Love You."


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


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