Cablegate: Cambodia has a New King -- Norodom Sihamoni
O 151255Z OCT 04
FM AMEMBASSY PHNOM PENH
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SUBJECT: CAMBODIA HAS A NEW KING -- NORODOM SIHAMONI
Classified By: DCM Mark C. Storella for reasons 1.5 (b) and (d).
1. (C) Summary: On October 14, the Cambodian Throne
Council unanimously (9-0) elected Norodom Sihamoni as the new
King of Cambodia. Sihamoni (51), a son of former King
Norodom Sihanouk and Queen Monineath, has lived for years in
France as a dancer and Cambodian Ambassador to UNESCO. He
will be formally invested in a ceremony in Phnom Penh October
29. Sihanouk engineered the choice of Sihamoni to ensure the
continuation of the monarchy. PM Hun Sen supported the
choice, perhaps because Sihamoni is apolitical and believed
to be relatively pliable. Sihamoni's half-brother, Prince
Ranariddh, went along, probably grudgingly, but may still
harbor desires someday to replace Sihamoni, possibly upon
Sihanouk's death. Sihanouk will now likely work behind the
scenes to train Sihamoni and keep his hand in politics. The
succession went forward in a remarkably orderly and peaceful
fashion in apparent conformity with the constitution and will
likely contribute to stability. Sihamoni has the bearing and
open spirit of a King. It is striking that the Cambodian
people have shown little reaction to Sihanouk's decision to
step down after 63 years at the center of Cambodian political
life. End Summary.
Anatomy of an Abdication
2. (C) Former King Sihanouk has never been satisfied with
his constitutional role as a monarch who "reigns but does not
rule." Since reassuming the throne in 1993, Sihanouk has
seen his power progressively eroded by powerful politicians,
especially Hun Sen, and a more open political system.
Sihanouk apparently took particular offense when his son,
Prince Ranariddh, and opposition politician Sam Rainsy walked
away from a new power sharing formula Sihanouk had brokered
last November. He was further disappointed when political
leaders refused his summons to Pyongyang this spring to
settle the political deadlock. Sihanouk has found himself
uncomfortably marginalized. At the same time, Sihanouk at
81, has complained of increasing medical problems, and has no
doubt focused on his legacy.
3. (C) When Sihanouk announced his resignation October 7,
many assumed it was another empty threat designed to provoke
calls for him to assume a greater role. In fact, it now
seems that a tired Sihanouk was focused on using what cards
he had left to ensure his own succession and the continuation
of the monarchy. In recent days, Sihanouk has spoken openly
about his concerns about the strength of republic sentiment,
which exists in all three top political parties, including
the royalists. Under the Cambodian constitution, a new King
is to be elected from among members of the three royal blood
lines by the Throne Council within seven days of the death of
the former King. A sitting King has no inherent
constitutional role and there is no heir apparent. And the
constitution is moot on what happens of the King abdicates.
It is now apparent that Sihanouk had worked behind the scenes
with Hun Sen and others to permit him maximum influence in
the selection of his own successor.
4. (C) Many had long speculated that Ranariddh, Sihanouk's
oldest son, would be the logical choice for King. However,
Sihanouk has had a rancorous relationship with Ranariddh for
years. Sihanouk may have worried that having such an overtly
political son as King would put the monarchy itself in
danger. But, most important, Sihanouk is devoted to Queen
Monineath, and, therefore, has long expressed support for his
son by her, Norodom Sihamoni. The selection of Sihamoni no
doubt took on even greater emotional urgency for the Queen
with the untimely death of her other son my Sihanouk, Prince
Narindrapong, earlier this year.
5. (C) Sihanouk needed Hun Sen's support to control his own
succession because Hun Sen controls a majority of the seats
on the nine-member Throne Council. Hun Sen has expressed his
support for Sihamoni, who is likely an attractive choice for
two reasons: first, Sihamoni is widely assumed to have no
political experience or ambition; second, the selection of
Sihamoni puts Ranariddh, a key competitor of Hun Sen, in a
kind of political box, limiting Ranariddh's political options
and increasing his dependence on Hun Sen.
6. (C) At Sihanouk's request, the National Assembly quickly
passed laws to permit election of a new King upon abdication
and to permit election by a simple majority of the Throne
Council, thus ensuring that Ranariddh -- a member of the
Council by virtue of his position as president of the
National Assembly -- could not block a vote on Sihamoni.
Ranariddh has recently claimed his support for Sihamoni, to
which Sihanouk publicly replied, "anyone who tells you he
does not want to be King is lying."
What of Sihanouk's Future?
7. (C) Sihanouk claims he intends to live quietly in
retirement. But no one is counting Sihanouk out yet. He has
indicated his intention to live in Phnom Penh probably in the
palace in close proximity to King Sihamoni. Speculation is
that Sihanouk will seek to mentor his son as King. There are
also rumors that Sihanouk may someday reenter the political
fray openly, possibly by starting his own political party.
As far fetched as that may sound now, Sihanouk abdicated the
first time in 1955 precisely so that he could play an overtly
political role and become prime minister.
8. (C) Ranariddh has professed support for his brother
Sihamoni as King and voted for Sihamoni in the Throne
Council. Nevertheless, there is ongoing speculation in Phnom
Penh that Ranariddh still hopes one day to ascend the throne.
While the selection of Sihamoni probably portends greater
stability in Cambodia, one cannot rule out a tense period
upon Sihanouk's eventual passing. Sihamoni has been King for
only 24 hours, and the rumor mill in Phnom Penh is already
churning out speculation that Ranariddh may still hope to
succeed his half-brother, possibly upon Sihamoni's eventual
Implications for the U.S.
9. (C) For the time being, there is no indication of any
negative impact of Sihamoni's ascension on the throne. The
process by which Sihamoni was chosen was remarkably peaceful
and orderly, which bodes well for stability in Cambodia. At
the same time, we know little of Sihamoni's political views.
He has a close attachment to France and is a French citizen,
but we are unaware of him ever expressing strong views about
the U.S. Since Sihanouk became King in 1941, U.S. relations
with the palace have often been rocky or worse. With
Sihamoni's ascension as King, we have an opportunity to open
a new chapter with the Cambodian monarchy.