Cablegate: Cambodia's Bohemian King - the Honeymoon Is Not

P 230805Z DEC 04


E.O. 12958: DECL: 12/22/2014

Classified By: Ambassador Charles A. Ray. Reason: 1.4 (b)

1. (C) SUMMARY: King Norodom Sihamoni continues to reach
out to people across Cambodia, bringing a new sense of
dignity to the royal house. Though most of his forays into
the countryside are carefully scripted, on occasion he breaks
the bonds and makes a solid connection with the crowds. His
careful, well-modulated speeches, though prompted as much by
his lack of familiarity with his native Khmer as anything,
have been a welcome change from the high-pitched speech
characteristic of his father and older half brother. He has
broken many of his father's traditions, most notably being
his insistence on having Khmer rather than North Korean
bodyguards, and having a less obvious security presence
around him when he meets with people. The Czech Ambassador
describes Sihamoni as the "Bohemian King of Cambodia," a man
who speaks Czech like a native, and who thinks of Prague as
his hometown. Sihamoni's relationship with the Hun Sen-led
government thus far has been without the tensions that
existed during his father's time on the throne. While it
seems clear that Hun Sen wants a non-political king, it
appears equally obvious that he is not anti-monarchy. The
most probable threat to the new King still seems to be the
ambitions of his half brother, the mercurial Prince
Ranariddh. END SUMMARY.

2. (U) King Norodom Sihamoni has kept up a punishing
schedule of visits to various provinces in Cambodia since his
coronation, most recently attending Les Nuits d'Angkor in
Siem Reap, much to the delight of the Cambodian members of
the dance troupe. Each week, he visits a different rural
area of the kingdom, speaking to the people, and most
important, listening to their concerns. He projects an aura
of calm that has in short order restored some of the dignity
to the throne, according to some local observers. Though his
trips are well scripted, included carefully prepared
speeches, he often breaks away from his entourage and gets
close to the crowd. At one such event which Ambassador
attended, people in the crowd cried after touching his hand.
Even some youth, who were noncommittal about the throne
before his coronation, seem genuinely moved by his obvious
compassion and concern.

3. (C) Sihamoni speaks in a calm, well-modulated voice, a
welcome relief from the high-pitched nasal tones of his
father Norodom Sihanouk. His slow, measured speech, an
effective method of gaining an audience's attention, is also
due to his unfamiliarity with his native Khmer. Sihamoni has
lived abroad for almost his entire adult life, and is far
more comfortable in other languages. He lived and studied in
the former Czechoslovakia, for example, from the ages of 9 to
22, and according to the Czech Ambassador, speaks Czech like
a Prague native. In fact, the Ambassador said, during his
courtesy call Sihamoni told him he hoped the people of Prague
were "proud of him for what he had accomplished." Jokingly,
the Ambassador said that Sihamoni has been the Czech
Republic's most significant export to Asia. The last
Bohemian King, from the house of Hapsburg, spoke Czech
haltingly and preferred his native German, while the
"Bohemian King of Cambodia" speaks perfect Czech, and even
signs his name "Sihamony."

4. (C) The new king has also broken tradition in regard to
his bodyguards. Unlike his father who has a contingent of
North Koreans, Sihamoni has insisted on having Khmer
security, albeit trained by the more experienced North
Koreans. Prince Norodom Sirivudh, Deputy Prime Minister and
co-Minister of the Interior, told Ambassador that on his
first trip to the provinces, Sihamoni took several of his
father's guards and people complained about their gruff
behavior. He then decided, Sirivudh said, to have them
provide technical training to Cambodians and since, he has
been surrounded by Khmer bodyguards. At a Phnom Penh outing
in early December, even the North Korean who is training the
contingent was not in sight. Sihamoni also does not have
guards in sight during his audiences, unlike Sihanouk who has
a North Korean with him at all times when he is in public.

5. (C) Some international commentators have speculated that
Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has had a difficult relationship
with the former king, wants to abolish the monarchy in
Cambodia. Our observations since Sihamoni's coronation are
that, while the Prime Minister prefers a non-political king,
and probably would not hesitate to destroy the monarchy if it
posed a real threat to his hold on power, he is not
anti-monarchy. Relations between the palace and the Council
of Ministers appear to be proper, and in some instances even
cordial. One senior CPP official has described Sihamoni as a
"king we can work with." For his part, Sihamoni has moved
slowly but steadily to establish the throne as a voice for
the voiceless, and as an institution that aims to help those
most in need of help. The most obvious threat to Sihamoni
still seems to stem from his half brother Prince Norodom
Ranariddh, currently president of the National Assembly and
head of the royalist FUNCINPEC party. At a lunch with
Ambassador on December 21, Ranaraddh reiterated that he loves
being in politics and did not want to be king. But even
those closest to him don't really believe him, and what he
might do, or try to do, after Sihanouk dies remains a mystery.

6. (C) COMMENT: It is probably too early to predict the
success or failure of the reign of King Norodom Sihamoni, but
all the signs point toward success, and that is important in
itself as he has assumed his position at a time when the
Cambodian monarchy was at its nadir. He seems to be
emulating the much respected Thai King by being the father
figure who stays above politics and who acts as the
conscience of the nation and the voice of the poor. He is
increasingly, it seems, exploring the limits of his ability
to act within the constitution, and making adjustments as he
goes along. As an example, early on he proposed holding
national conferences as called for in the constitution, but
Hun Sen objected. Sihamoni dropped the idea, but has since
been meeting with small groups and listening to their
grievances - a sort of mini-conference. Another win for
Sihamoni came when Hun Sen, who initially objected to monthly
cabinet briefings for the king, later announced publicly that
he and his cabinet would do so on a monthly basis. The
ruling party needs the monarchy to help validate its own
legitimacy, and as long as Sihamoni avoids the details of
politics he will probably have CPP support. If he continues
to reach out to the people as successfully as he has this
past few months, there could come a day if he is threatened
by anyone (e.g., Prince Ranariddh), he would have the CPP and
the whole country at his back.


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