Sihanouk: Cambodia's last true king
‘‘The reason why some people say the king is without power, a prisoner in the palace, is because they compare him to the King-Father. This is wrong,’’ the minister said. ‘‘Sihanouk was also head of state involved in politics. The current king is playing the classic role of protecting Cambodian unity, tradition, religion. The king will survive if he is firmly committed to this constitutional role.’’
To date, Sihamoni has shown little desire to expand his role, staying in the background as long his father was alive. ‘‘Now we will see if he can exercise his power. It depends on him, now that he has a free hand. He has to show that he is king,’’ Son Soubert says.
The constitution stipulates that the monarch heads a potentially powerful Supreme Council of National Defense and an annual People’s National Congress. But the law enacting the council has languished in draft form since 1993 and there is no draft yet related to the congress. Son Soubert says axing the congress would break a long tradition allowing all citizens direct access to the king.
Sihamoni, his councilor says, has also not been allowed to take some trips abroad, including one on invitation from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. And diplomats say he would like, if permitted, to take more trips to the countryside, where his father enjoyed his greatest support but where Sihamoni cannot make much of a difference.
‘‘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.’’
Because of the current king’s his isolation, the lawyer says Sihamoni is losing touch with the country’s vital majority, the young, while Hun Sen may even gain support from the older generation because he is portraying himself as a Sihanouk admirer as he serves as master of ceremonies at his elaborate funeral.
Others disagree. Nilsson says the mass outpouring of grief and reverence following Sihanouk’s death has strengthened the institution although since Sihanouk’s abdication in 2004 ‘‘the monarchy has increasingly moved to become a decorative monarchy along the lines of Western European constitutional monarchies.’’
‘‘The passing of Sihanouk can be understood as the end-point of this longer process, cementing the role of the monarchy as a strictly constitutional one,’’ she says. ‘‘Since Sihamoni carries himself as a strictly constitutional monarch, the monarchy no longer poses any challenge to Hun Sen, and Hun Sen will have no reason to act against the monarchy.’’
The royalists themselves wrestle with how to deal with Sihanouk’s complex legacy. The young king abdicated the throne for the first time in 1955 to assume various political leadership roles, including head of state for life, although he was back on the throne later. Sihanouk in fact eroded kingly power while retaining the aura of kingship in the eyes of the general population.
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.