Cambodia has a new king and ASEAN has witnessed yet another smooth transfer of power.
Let us hope that this will be the regional norm henceforth.
His Majesty King Norodom Sihamoni greets young well-wishers.
What made the announcement that former Prince Norodom Sihamoni will be the new King
of Cambodia different from other regional transfers of power is that, unlike in the
latter cases, foreign commentators and even Cambodians themselves are not sure what
kind of a king he will be. He has been overseas in Prague, Pyongyang and Paris all
his adult life, and those times he was in Cambodia, he kept a low profile.
Maybe it is because of this that some news reports greeted the royal succession with
headlines such as 'Ballet dancer becomes King'. That's catchy no doubt; it might
even give the impression to the uninitiated that strange things happen in these far-flung
Asian countries - especially one which habitually receives bad press, like Cambodia.
Not that it matters much, but the point is that King Sihamoni was also a professor
of classical dance at the Marius Petipa Conservatory, the W.A. Mozart Conservatory
of Paris and the Gabriel Faure Conservatory, apart from being Cambodia's ambassador
to UNESCO, the United Nations cultural organisation.
What little we know of the new king is what we hear of him from others. We know for
certain that, like his father and many others in the royal family, he has a great
love of music and dance. Father Sihanouk sings well and has composed many songs,
several of which are popular hits like 'Phnom Penh, Phnom Penh'. Half-sister Princess
Bopha Devi, until recently the Minister of Culture and now a senator, was an acclaimed
prima donna in the Royal Cambodian Ballet. Uncle Prince Norodom Sirivudh plays the
saxophone in the royal family band. The list goes on.
Some of those who have worked with King Sihamoni at Unesco have also described him
as extremely polite and caring, and someone not given to an extravagant lifestyle.
His apartment in Paris was said to be modest.
In a rare interview King Sihamoni gave, he mentioned how when the royal family was
under house arrest during the dark Khmer Rouge days, all the royals had to help grow
fruits and vegetables in the palace grounds to supplement the fortnightly food supply
which the Khmer Rouge provided. In addition, as he was younger and healthier, he
regularly cleaned the Throne Hall, which will now have a greater significance for
King Sihamoni will not be flamboyant like his father, but will exude quiet charm
and be more predictable. He clearly demonstrated this in November 2002, when he deputized
for his father at the important Independence Day ceremony. The guests present were
surprised when the royal limousine pulled up and it was then-Prince Sihamoni who
stepped out. He did very well, and later, when he came to shake hands with the assembled
diplomatic corps - almost all of whom were meeting him for the first time - he left
behind a very favourable impression of himself.
One of King Sihamoni's main concerns now must be to allow his people to know him
better. There are enough official functions to enable this, but I would think that
he will be outgoing and pro-active and will probably visit the various provinces
and, in particular, rural communities.
As a constitutional monarch, King Sihamoni will be above politics. But there will
be times in Cambodia's fractious politics when the king has to play a unifying role.
Former King Sihanouk had that authority, an astute political sense and a deep understanding
of domestic power play which many believe the new king lacks.
This brings to focus the mentor role Father Sihanouk will have. It will be difficult
for him to remain quiet or unaffected by political developments in the country. However,
the chances are that he will try to remain in the background, difficult as it might
be for him to advise the new king. This has a great advantage in that, instead of
the sometimes knee-jerk reaction from the palace, the parents and son will mull over
a problem and consider the options open to them.
I would think that King Sihamoni will slowly create his own set of privy counsellors
consisting of trusted aides and technocrats to provide him the options.
King Sihamoni has all the attributes to be a great king. What he needs for now is
HE Verghese Mathews, the former ambassador to Cambodia from the Republic of Singapore,
is a visiting fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.