Thursday, October 14, 2004

BANGKOK — Southeast Asia’s wiliest political survivor yesterday completed his own intricately scripted exit from the stage. King Norodom Sihanouk, who first took Cambodia’s throne when Nazi-backed Vichy France con- trolled Indochina in 1941, stunned his subjects last week by announcing he would voluntarily abdicate and allow his untested son, Prince Norodom Sihamoni, to replace him.

The formal transfer, endorsed in yesterday’s unanimous decision by the country’s nine-member throne council in Phnom Penh, thrust the 51-year-old prince, a trained classical dancer based in Paris since the 1970s, into the international limelight and ended the reign of the only monarch most Cambodians have ever known.

Reuters news agency reported that Prince Norodom Ranariddh, the new king’s half-brother and a member of the throne council as head of the National Assembly, suggested the transfer of power had been choreographed well before the council meeting.

“All nine members of the royal throne council support Sihamoni as the new king,” Prince Ranariddh told reporters after a self-declared “mission impossible” to Beijing to try to get his father to change his mind. The council consists of both leading political and Buddhist officials.

The new king, educated in Prague and North Korea, recently served as Cambodia’s representative to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and his apolitical background proved a point in his favor when his father sought a successor.

Prince Sihamoni was “a neutral person not engaged in politics, and nonpartisan,” the king told the Associated Press.

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: Sihanouk and the king’s wife, Queen Monineath. He is the couple’s only surviving son. Sihanouk said his voluntary departure, which took the nation by surprise, was because of ill health.

He has suffered diabetes, heart problems and colon cancer, but his announcement apparently was timed to confirm a successor while he was still able to control the transition.

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

Sihanouk could not appoint a successor, but was able to influence the throne council. Under the constitution, the council selects a new monarch seven days after the king dies, abdicates or is incapacitated.

The council is dominated by iron-fisted Prime Minister Hun Sen, who was a military officer under Pol Pot’s murderous Khmer Rouge regime. The prime minister has had testy relations with Sihanouk, though they often compromise.

Political analysts said Mr. Hun Sen apparently approved of Prince Sihamoni because the new monarch would be politically inexperienced and content to serve as a figurehead.

“I have had the great honor to serve the nation and people for more than half a century,” 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 are getting weaker.”

Prince Ranariddh was also eligible for the throne but appeared more intent on holding on to real political power and continuing his heated opposition against Mr. 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 Mr. Hun Sen.

After the much-criticized trial, both men received amnesties from their father, with the prime minister’s approval.

Sihanouk will be a tough act for his 51-year-old son to follow.

Born on Oct. 31, 1922 in Phnom Penh, the king has broken bread, bargained and battled with some of the 20th century’s towering leaders.

The list includes France’s Charles de Gaulle, India’s Jawaharlal Nehru, Sukarno of Indonesia, and Nikita Khruschchev of the Soviet Union, as well as a roster of global strongmen from Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser and China’s Mao Zedong to Yugoslavia’s Josip Broz Tito, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania, and Kim Il-sung of North Korea.

Known for his high-pitched voice and often “mercurial” behavior, King Sihanouk was crowned in 1941 at age 18, blessed by French colonialists who thought he would be politically pliable.

During World War II, Japan occupied Cambodia, kicked out the Nazi-backed Vichy French, and declared the country “independent” under the young king.

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

But Vietnam’s communist leader, Ho Chi Minh, battled the French in Vietnam, inspiring a young Pol Pot to start Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge in hopes of ousting France from all of Indochina.

Ho Chi Minh’s army defeated the French in 1954 at Dien Bien Phu, and the subsequent peace conference in Geneva awarded King Sihanouk control over independent Cambodia.

Seeking real political power, the king abdicated in 1955 to allow his father, Norodom Suramarit, to assume the throne.

The once and future king became prime minister, and ruled with bloody, Machiavellian moves to prop up or crush rival factions.

He angered Washington by opposing the Vietnam War, supporting the communist North against U.S.-backed South Vietnam.

“My own militant support for the 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 … to the Viet Cong bases,” he wrote in his memoir, titled “Sihanouk Reminisces.”

A 1970 coup by U.S.-backed Gen. Lon Nol toppled King Sihanouk while he was on a visit to the Soviet Union. Living in exile in China, he retaliated by supporting Khmer Rouge guerrillas and North Vietnamese troops against Lon Nol and the Americans.

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, inaugurating their “killing fields” regime.

But the king flew to New York in 1975 and told the United Nations that the Khmer Rouge evacuation of cities had been achieved “without bloodshed” and he convinced exiled Cambodian intellectuals, military officers and others to return home to support the new regime.

When they did, they were killed alongside more than 1 million other Cambodians, victims of the Khmer Rouge’s policies of mass executions, enslavement, torture and starvation.

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

Vietnam invaded in 1979 and ousted Pol Pot. In 1982, King 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 government in Phnom Penh, followed by U.N.-supervised elections in 1993, he was crowned “king and head of state for life” to “reign but not rule.”

He shuttled between 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.

Sihanouk’s influence dwindled, but he remains popular among many of Cambodia’s 11 million citizens, especially the elderly.

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

To the end, he remained a unique figure among world leaders. He enjoyed entertaining guests by singing, often in French-accented English, songs such as Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You.”

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