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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - The Artiste, The Ambassador, The Prince

The Artiste, The Ambassador, The Prince

P REAH Ang Mechas Prince Norodom Sihamoni, the King's most artistic son, avoids

the Royal limelight. Instead, he has devoted his life to dance. He is reportedly

the King's favorite son, not only because he has inherited his love of the art,

but also because they shared the darkest period of their lives: the Khmer Rouge

occupation.

Sihamoni has lived in Paris since 1982, where he is a

classical western ballet dancer and teaches at the Conservatoire de Dance Marius

Petipa. For the past year, he has been Cambodia's Ambassador to UNESCO.

Born in May 1953, he is one of two sons of Queen Monique Monineath. The

other is Preah Ang Mechas Prince Norindrapong, born the following year. At the

age of eight, Sihamoni was sent to study in Prague. There, at the Conservatoire,

he concentrated on ballet, music, in particular the piano, and theater.

"Prague was a wonderful city when I was there in 1961, very animated,"

he recalled. "I went to primary school, and lived within the embassy for three

years. During the summer holidays, I came here for two months and studied

classical Khmer dance with my sister, Princess Bopha Devi."

He is, like

his father, a cosmopolitan man, who speaks impeccable French, as well as Czech,

Russian, English and Khmer. Soft-spoken, with refined manners and quiet charm,

he is single.

He has a close relationship with both parents, having spent

three years imprisoned with them and Norindrapong in the Royal Palace during the

Khmer Rouge period. Most of Sihanouk's children went abroad, although five

perished under the Khmer Rouge, together with the King's Laotian wife.

"Many people don't realize that we lost two sisters and three brothers

during the war, as well as eleven of their children," said Sihamoni.

"The four of us were imprisoned in the palace, together with three close

women friends of my mother.

"During that time, we saw no-one. We had no

staff, no cooks or gardeners. For food, we grew vegetables and fruit in the

garden of the palace. There were banana trees, we had plots, and we grew

everything. Twice a week Khmer Rouge guards came to the back door and gave us

rice and fish. We cooked everything ourselves. For our clothes, we wore black

clothes given to us by the Khmer Rouge. We washed everything ourselves.

"If we were ill, my mother treated us. She was marvelous." (The Queen

had been active in the Cambodian Red Cross, and was Honorary President from

1961, until the Lon Nol coup in 1970).

"She had a medical kit which she

had brought with her from China, and she would look after us. I remember one of

the women friends who was with us fell one day and cut open her head badly. My

mother went straight to her medical kit and got out instruments and parted her

hair like this," - he demonstrated on his own head as he described it - "and

cleaned up the wound, which was deep, and sewed it up. Later, when we were in

Peking, the doctors treated her."

"We were completely out of contact

with the outside world. My father listened secretly to a small radio he had, to

Voice of America, at night. So that was how we heard about the massacres and

about what was going on. But we did not know the extent of what was happening

beyond the palace. We did not know about Tuol Sleng. My father asked to be let

out to visit his country, to see his people, but they refused.

"This

period was a very unhappy one, especially for our morale. My father's morale was

low. I got on with things. I am very physical, being a dancer, so I worked in

the gardens. I cleaned out the throne hall."

Sihamoni recollected the one

meeting he had with Pol Pot. "He was like a statue, cold, glacial, unreal. I

knew from the beginning that the Khmer Rouge were evil, that they were

devils."

After the coup in 1970 the royal family had fled to Peking. They

were still there when the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh on April 17,1975.

Sihanouk then came back as Head of State.

"We returned in September 1975.

There were many people who believed in what the Khmer Rouge were doing. My

brother Norindrapong supported them. But at the end of the war, when he saw what

had happened, he became psychologically ill. He is still ill,

now."

Sihamoni remembered that when the Khmer Rouge heard that the

Vietnamese were approaching in 1978, they were afraid that the King would be

seized. They moved them from the palace to a nearby house for three months, said

to be the present Cafe No Problem.

"I don't know which villa it was,"

said Sihamoni. "I just remember that we were taken through narrow paths amid

lots of trees, to a villa where we were shut in."

After the Vietnamese

invasion in 1979, the Royal family left on the last Chinese airplane to Peking.

Sihamoni remained for two years with his parents in Peking, and in Pyongyang,

working as his father's secretary, as he formed the liberation army. "They

needed me. They had no one."

In 1982, he asked to go to France, where

there were many Cambodian refugees. He wanted to perpetuate and preserve

Cambodia's culture there.

"My parents knew that I was artistic. They

knew from an early age I wanted to dance, and they had always accepted that. So

when in 1982 I asked if I could go to dance in Paris, they agreed. Later I came

back and spent two months in the Liberated Zone with them, near the Thai border.

My father had a house there. Prince Ranarridh was there.

"For the next

ten years I performed and choreographed ballets with my troupe of ten dancers in

Paris, called Ballet Deva. We appeared at the Theatre de L'Empire, and also in

the provinces and in Germany. It was important to present our culture abroad, to

keep it alive. Culture had disappeared from this country."

He made two

ballet films, "Dream" and "Four Elements". He starred in his father's film, "The

Little Prince" in 1966, when he was 13 years old. Sihamoni, who looks much

younger than his years, then made a second film with the King in 1992, "Mon

Village."

"This summer we are going to make another film together, which

I will direct, called "Le Bonze". It is the story of a monk was who killed by

the Khmer Rouge, near Battambang. I want to stay in Cambodia for a while to be

with my parents."

Sihamoni is widely rumored to be a possible successor

to the throne. Sources close to the palace say he is the choice of Queen

Monineath. His eligibility is based on his political neutrality and the fact

that he is a patron of the arts and ancient Khmer culture and traditions. One

source says Sihanouk has secretly willed to him all the assets of the monarchy.

But Sihamoni denies the possibility of this role, claiming that he has

no wish to be King.

"People say things which aren't true. Firstly,

according to the Constitution, there is no inherited succession. The King is

chosen by the National Assembly. So it could be someone far away from the King.

It is not necessarily someone close in line to him. It's a democratic process.

What Julio Jeldres (the King's official biographer) has said is a lie. I don't

want to be King. I want to consecrate my life to culture, to choreography, to

film. The throne does not interest me. I have never wanted to be King. My father

does not want me to be King. If I were asked, I would say no."

He wants

to stay in France, the country which has most helped him. "I am faithful to my

friends and to the country. France gave me a chance. I am faithful to the

Conservatoire. I love dance. It's what I love most. I do not want to be in a

diplomatic or political role, although I want to serve my country, of course."

Now, since the elections, he emphasizes the work to be done here which

he will fulfill as ambassador to UNESCO.

"I am so happy that the war is

over and we can reconstruct our country. We have so much to do. Culture is so

important. It is the soul of the people. If culture disappears, I am afraid for

our people. I am afraid that culture will vanish. Everything is money, money,

money. We need theater, we need to train people, to train teachers. That is why

I work with UNESCO, trying to get schools started up in the countryside. We need

primary schools. Many people cannot even read or write. Our people need to be

educated and to work, for their dignity.

"Look at the Royal University

of Fine Arts. They need so much there. They are working in terrible conditions,

no light, no facilities. We have to improve all that. I am fighting for this at

UNESCO."

He is anxious to record all the steps of Khmer classical dance

and music, with Princess Bopha Devi. "But she has health problems, too," he

admitted.

Dance must evolve, he claims. "Dance has to move ahead in the

world. Of course, we must keep the strict classical tradition intact, but

another form, such as the folkloric dance, must open up, develop. It needs new

form. It is not free, it needs to be liberated. Western contemporary dance is

more exuberant, spontaneous.

"In "Duel" (the latest ballet he

choreographed and brought to Cambodia), I concentrate more on making the men

move, because men do not feature so strongly in Khmer dance. I have been

influenced by the Russian ballet. There is something of L'Apres Midi D'Un

Faun in Duel. Khmer dance is very sensual, even though it is sacred. Look at

the dancer's feet, as they touch the ground, slowly the skin makes contact, the

women move sensuously. And in Angkor, the apsaras are very sensual.

"I

love contemporary dance. The greatest choreographer was Martha Graham. I like

Pina Bauche, the German choreographer. We are going to work together next year

on a dance and bring it here.

He believes passionately that Cambodia

needs external ideas to develop its culture, while at the same time maintaining

its roots.

"Look at the countries around us, they have all lost their

cultural traditions, with the exception of Indonesia. It's all business and

money."

"We talk about Angkor all the time, but too much emphasis is

placed on Angkor. Glorious as it is, it's the past. It is the witness of a great

culture, we must safeguard it. But now Cambodia needs other expressions."

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