Phnom Penh Perspective:
by Bronwyn Sloan
When the agreement between the UN and the government to hold a joint trial of former Khmer Rouge leaders was finally passed last week, only one news story could outplay it, and it did—Cambodia's King Norodom Sihanouk announced his abdication, and no amount of pleading could persuade the ailing 81-year-old to change his mind.
So on October 29, a new king is expected to be crowned during a coronation ceremony as lavish as Cambodia can muster. That man will be Prince Norodom Sihamoni, a 51-year-old diplomat and former dancer, the only surviving son of King Sihanouk and Queen Norodom Monineath.
Whatever side of the fence one stands on regarding the monarch, King Sihanouk's abdication irrevocably marks the end of an era. Mercurial, enigmatic, flamboyant are just some of the adjectives that have been used to describe a man who has been at the heart of so much of the country's recent history.
Although Cambodia's king does not enjoy the universal reverence of another monarch of the region, it has to be said he has been colorful. Those journalists who heaved a sigh of relief when they were pulled off the Cambodian tour of Norway's Crown Prince Haakon with UNDP recently to cover Cambodia hosting an ASEAN-sponsored competition for watching paint dry will appreciate that.
Few monarchs, either, have allowed so much of their own personality to be seen and scrutinized by their public. King Sihanouk’s legendary website, which he says he will now no longer post entries on, explored issues from domestic politics to the war in Iraq, and in interviews with journalists and diplomats throughout the years he was effusive, charming and above all frank.
His son Prince Sihamoni survived the Khmer Rouge, held as the regime’s prisoner in the palace alongside his father and mother. He left Cambodia shortly after the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, however, and is little known to most ordinary Cambodians, although they seem more than ready to revere a new king.
So what does it all mean for Cambodia? The former Khmer Rouge foot soldiers who now live in abject poverty trying to scrape together a corn crop in Kampong Speu or who work 14-hour days on other people's plantations for a pittance would say none. They will tell you that they joined the Khmer Rouge at the insistence of their king, and have now found themselves pariahs, trapped on the losing side with little hope for their futures being better, nor their children’s.
People like my friend who lost their entire family to those same foot soldiers don't weep at the loss of the last God King either. Rightly or wrongly, they blame Sihanouk's intemperance and influence for gifting the KR with the impetus to come to power.
A young generation of city dwellers who have grown impatient enough to write letters to newspapers complaining about Sihanouk's insistence on posting on his website in French when barely a third of the country is literate in its own language after the long civil war might also look to a new king with fresh hopes and few regrets.
But as the founder of the local human rights group Licadho, Kek Galabru, points out, Sihanouk is still worshipped in the countryside. He remains popular at home, is a familiar figure on the international stage and very experienced in the vagaries of the cut-throat world of both international and domestic politics. In that way, she says, he will be sorely missed as the mediator at home and the face of Cambodia overseas.
Sihanouk would argue his hands were tied as the country plunged into the bloody past he is blamed for by some of his children, as he calls the Cambodian people. Could anyone, he may ask, have won in the face of a US government so oblivious to the way the region worked as the Vietnam War raged on the doorstep?
And he would probably draw attention to the fact that he led Cambodia peacefully from underneath the colonial yoke of the French in 1953 as a young king—a diplomatic masterstroke pulled off as a very young king, and a king who had been installed by the French to serve as a malleable puppet.
King Sihanouk has abdicated once before to rule Cambodia as a politician, heading his Sangkum Reas Niyum (The Popular Socialist Community) party. Though some argue rose colored glasses now make people forget the iron fisted rule of that party, that party led through a golden economic era that held until 1970 and is still held up by many survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime as a time when Cambodia shone internationally as a place of prosperity, where the world's rich and famous came to holiday, tourism boomed and architecture, the arts and culture reached pinnacles of imagination and perfection.
Supporters of Sihanouk argue that it is unfair to blame him. The Americans, they point out, didn't recognize the full horror of the Khmer Rouge, nor see the future when they backed Lon Nol to stage a coup and overthrow him. And from there, the international community was as duplicitous and blind as anyone, still recognizing the leaders of one of the bloodiest regimes in history even after the extent of the atrocities were clear for all the world to see with a seat on the UN rather than embrace what they saw as communist invaders.
The aging former King Sihanouk has pointed out that many in his family were also killed. Without the Khmer Rouge, who killed his son Prince Naradipo in 1975, it may well have been a different prince being crowned this month. Sihanouk will hope that history will judge him kindly.
These are questions and implications historians and scholars still argue over, and ones that will be pivotal in any trial of former Khmer Rouge leaders, at least from the point of view of their defense lawyers. But the new king has already brought change; the world is talking about Cambodia’s future and not focusing on its past with its usual morbid obsession. Cambodians, too, are looking forward, and most Cambodians seem optimistic about that future with Prince Sihamoni as their king.
The maturity with which all political parties rallied and accepted the king's choice of Prince Sihamoni to succeed him was telling in a notoriously fractious political scene. Cambodia, it should be remembered, failed to form a government for nearly a year after the last elections despite one party winning just under two-thirds of all seats in the national assembly. King Sihanouk mediated in that stalemate, then withdrew to Beijing for medical treatment.
So Prince Sihamoni can already unify the main political parties. And he has another great advantage—the experience of both his father and his mother, Queen Norodom Monineath, to draw on. A popular queen and masterful diplomat in her own right, Queen Monineath has quietly shared much of the king's tumultuous career and he has often named her as his great support.
In the last decade, Cambodia has been embraced by the international community. It has handled itself with aplomb as a member of ASEAN, and its place on the world stage has been cemented with accession to the WTO. It is a nation which traces back to an ancient and glorious culture and, although the victim of a turbulent recent past, is a non-aggressive and peaceful neighbor seen abroad as a neutral nation. As time goes on, it becomes increasingly apparent that Cambodia, or at least some of its leaders, does not want to be seen forever as the beggar at the foot of the world's table, but as a fully fledged equal. That may be where Sihamoni’s new role comes to the fore.
Obviously its economy and population base of around 13 million is too small to be a new Japan, but some have said that Cambodia’s other attributes leave it in an enviable position in the future nonetheless; as a potential mediator in world affairs. A diplomat king as educated, cultured and internationally respected as Sihamoni, who has never been tainted by politics and indeed has not even met many of Cambodia's current crop of politicians, could be seen as the ideal man to lead the kingdom into this next stage.
So the new king, who constitutionally reigns but does not rule, could potentially make the role even more relevant in the modern context than it has been in the recent past. And he can potentially do so without ruffling any political feathers at home. His slate is clean. His name appears neither in history books as more than a mention, nor in gossip columns. Cambodia's rural peasant population will embrace him, no matter what, as their king.
So maybe there is an argument against that which contends Cambodia's royalty will gradually fade away and the nation become a republic? The kings and queens of Europe have gradually lost their relevance, but in neighboring Thailand, for instance, His Royal Highness has served an incredibly vital role as father of the kingdom. No Thai would claim to regret one second of his rule, nor underestimate the place he holds as a leader who holds the country together.
Cambodia's new king can also potentially still play a major role in his country's future as a neutral spearhead to further advance Cambodia's position overseas. Asia is not Europe, and in Buddhist Cambodia, a king holds a special place in the eyes of his people. This one has the advantage of knowing the world intimately, too, after his decades in Paris.
Perhaps part of the optimism surrounding Cambodia’s new king's accession is that out of the wrangling and bickering about who was responsible for blood spilt in the past, for the Khmer Rouge, for the struggling economy of a new peace, something happened this month that is fresh, unsullied and divorced from all of that? Can this be a new beginning marking a new age?
No one can or wants to forget the past, but like any relationship, sometimes forging ahead from scratch with someone unfamiliar is the best way to rebuild from lessons learned and harsh experience. Sihanouk is still there to provide advice to his son on those experiences. For now, public sentiment seems to be that Sihamoni might just be the man who can work in a sphere separate but complimentary to its political one and push Cambodia into a bright new future in a way only a kingdom’s king can do.
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