10 Years Into Sihamoni’s Reign, a Changed Palace

With a sprig of leaves behind his ear in place of a crown, King Norodom Sihamoni ascended Cambodia’s throne 10 years ago Wednesday in a ceremony at the Royal Palace dominated by the competing sounds of xylophones and military drums.

Replacing his recently abdicated father, King Norodom Sihanouk, the man who had been the face of the country since his original coronation in 1941, the new king pledged to discharge his duties as head of state in service of the nation.

King Norodom Sihamoni makes his way to the Throne Hall at the Royal Palace to take his oath during his coronation in October 2004. (John Vink)
King Norodom Sihamoni makes his way to the Throne Hall at the Royal Palace to take his oath during his coronation in October 2004. (John Vink)

“Today, it has been bestowed upon me the immense honor of assuming the throne of Cambodia,” King Sihamoni said. “As from this happy and solemn day, I shall devote my body and soul to the service of the people and the nation.”

Coming a decade after the mercurial King Sihanouk restored the monarchy, it was the beginning of a very different reign.

“The monarchy is more symbolic now. It’s not powerful like it was before,” political analyst Lao Mong Hay said Tuesday. “It is just there to legitimize the regime through its functions.”

“At the beginning, I thought, ‘Let him have five years to get a hand on royal authority,’ but since then, he’s mostly been at the mercy of our prime minister,” Mr. Mong Hay said. “It is a bit disappointing.”

In comparison to his father, who ruled with an iron fist before 1970 and led an armed resistance against Prime Minister Hun Sen in the 1980s, King Sihamoni acceded to the throne in 2004 after a life spent mostly in Prague and Paris and dedicated to dance.

The publicly taciturn younger king has, since his coronation, carried out his duties without the flamboyance of his father, who used his lasting personal authority to openly criticize Mr. Hun Sen and other government leaders.

King Sihanouk even refused to preside over the opening of the National Assembly in 2003 until the three political parties sorted out that year’s disputed election, a decision that contrasted starkly with King Sihamoni’s convening of the CPP-only assembly amid the CNRP’s claims of election fraud last year.

“My lovely king right now is the king under the Constitution and it says what the king should do and should not do,” Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said Tuesday. “He is the figurehead of the nation and does not just follow what anyone says.”

“That’s why you don’t see much of his involvement in politics. He’s concerned with unity and peace. That’s what a figurehead of national unity and peace does. He follows the Constitution.”

This perspective is also shared by some within the royal family, including Prince Sisowath Sirirath, who said King Sihamoni’s refusal to stoop to sensationalist acts of politicking, such as King Sihanouk’s strategic escape to Beijing during the 2003 post-election dispute, has kept the monarchy elevated above politics.

“On the political front, there are different issues, but as far as members of the royal family like myself are concerned, King Sihamoni has done a great job of maintaining peace and stability,” Prince Sirirath said. “The monarchy commands a very strong sense of unity and stability among the Cambodian people.”

Monks take part in a procession in front of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh on Tuesday on the first day of a three-day ceremony to mark 10 years since King Norodom Sihamoni ascended the throne. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
Monks take part in a procession in front of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh on Tuesday on the first day of a three-day ceremony to mark 10 years since King Norodom Sihamoni ascended the throne. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

Efforts to protect the monarchy through cohabitation with the CPP—a regime with socialist republican roots and its own historical antagonism toward the royal family—have been a success, according to Astrid Noren-Nilsson, a Swedish academic who has studied Cambodia’s monarchy.

“Sihamoni’s strict constitutional stance has, by not delivering any challenge to the CPP, secured the survival of the monarchy,” Ms. Noren-Nilsson said in an email, noting that the outpouring of grief after King Sihanouk’s death in 2012 had also helped strengthen the monarchy.

“Before, occasional CPP allusions that the monarchy could be done away with had to be considered seriously. Today, such a scenario is no longer possible—the monarchy is here to stay for the foreseeable future,” she said.

“What is perplexing is that the monarchy itself does not seem to acknowledge this new position of strength.”

In front of the Royal Palace on Tuesday, preparations were underway for a ceremony this morning to mark the decade King Sihamoni has spent as the country’s head of state, with about 500 people turning out to make offerings to monks.

“I used to live under King Father Norodom Sihanouk and I was very happy in my heart,” said Keo Saroeun, 70, who came out to watch some 1,000 monks pray during the ceremony. “He came to Ratanakkiri province and he brought us rice, he gave food to the people and everyone loved him. I plead to the royal family to stay with the Cambodian people forever.”

For John Ciorciari, a Cambodia expert at the University of Michigan, the Cambodian monarchy’s enduring need to draw on the late king father 10 years after his son ascended the throne speaks to the institution’s weakened position in the country’s political order.

“King Sihanouk’s personal stature elongated the monarchy’s role as a significant factor in Cambodian politics, but that role has been reduced to a largely ceremonial one since 2004,” when King Sihamoni took over the throne, Mr. Ciorciari said by email.

“This reflects the political constraints the current king faces in a political order dominated by the prime minister and his party. It also appears to reflect his less assertive political temperament,” he said.

“Barring the accession of a monarch with special political gifts and inclinations, there is little reason to expect that the monarchy will regain a major political role in the future.”

Cambodia historian David Chandler was more blunt, saying King Sihamoni’s passive use of the throne and the political environment around him may foretell of the end of the monarchy.

“I don’t think he has been allowed (nor is there evidence that he has sought) any freedom of maneuver. There’s also no evidence that I know of to indicate that he gains any pleasure from being king, a role that was forced on him by his parents,” Mr. Chandler said.

“His reign will have no impact at all because all the indications I can see suggest that he will be the last king of Cambodia.”

(Additional reporting by Khuon Narim)

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