By DENIS D. GRAY
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — When the flames at the cremation ground are quenched and Cambodia’s former monarch Norodom Sihanouk’s ashes scattered on Phnom Penh’s riverfront, the mighty Mekong River may well carry away the country’s last true king, a towering figure in a procession of more than 100 monarchs stretching back 2,000 years.
Today, Cambodia has a new king, but he holds little of the power that Sihanouk once wielded. Instead, a poor farmer’s son and onetime communist commander, strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen, now occupies the dominant position that Sihanouk represented for years.
For more than half a century, Sihanouk bestrode this Southeast Asian country like a colossus, wresting independence from France, keeping the opposing Cold War powers at bay while maneuvering adroitly — at times brutally — through domestic minefields.
A larger-than-life character, Sihanouk survived wars and the Khmer Rouge reign of terror before succumbing to a heart attack last October at the age of 89. The King-Father, as he is called, will be cremated Monday.
By most accounts, his son, current King Norodom Sihamoni, a gentle man and former ballet dancer, ascended the throne reluctantly and does not appear to have inherited any of the father’s political skills needed in Cambodia’s winner-take-all arena.
Bent on monopolizing power, Hun Sen’s regime has not afforded Sihamoni powers guaranteed to the monarchy by the constitution and even restricts the king’s movements outside palace walls, according to royalists and political opponents.
Sihamoni’s shrinking role and personality, together with the erosion of traditional society, does not bode well for monarchy’s long-term future.
“I think the survival of the monarchy after Sihamoni drops off the mortal coil is, at best, a 50-50 bet,” says Milton Osborne, an Australian historian and author of a Sihanouk biography.
“He would be much happier if he could go back to France,” says Son Soubert, the king’s high privy councilor — or to the Czech Republic. Sihamoni spent 25 years in the two countries, as a student in Prague and Cambodia’s ambassador to UNESCO, the cultural body, in Paris.
He has described his time in what was then Czechoslovakia — “my second homeland” — as belonging to the “happiest part of my life” and still speaks Czech like a Prague native. Diplomats say that after dinner, usually taken alone, the 59-year-old bachelor loves to read Czech and French theater reviews and watch DVDs of ballets and operas.
“Grandiose, energetic and charismatic, Sihanouk was considered by many as the quintessential ‘God-King,’ a model which contrasts sharply with the quiet, reserved, and circumscribed stance of Sihamoni,” says Astrid Noren-Nilsson, a political scientist at Cambridge University. “Whilst Sihanouk was a natural-born, astute politician, Sihamoni does not aspire to any political role.”
“I don’t know him very well. I just know that he is the son of the King-Father so I will love him too,” said Khim Touch, a 60-year-old farmer from Kampot province who like hundreds of thousands others came to Phnom Penh to pay her last respects to Sihanouk. She recalled Sihanouk once coming to her village to pass out sarongs, rice seeds and cash.
Soung Sophorn, a young human rights lawyer, says the king’s popularity is fast diminishing because “people see that he cannot solve their problems compared to what Sihanouk did. The king himself is not strong, brave enough to oppose Hun Sen, and Hun Sen has closed all the doors.”
The royalists themselves wrestle with how to deal with Sihanouk’s complex legacy and exactly what kind of a mantle Sihamoni may assume remains to be seen, but Osborne says that for now the monarchy remains important for Cambodia’s sense of national identity, at least among some segments of the population. And Geoffrey Gunn, a Southeast Asia expert at Japan’s Nagasaki University, adds that at times of national crisis royalty can be wielded as a rallying national symbol.
“I think Hun Sen understands that he cannot diminish the status of the monarchy to irrelevance,” Gunn says.