Former-King Norodom Sihanouk has stood at the center of Cambodian
political culture for more than five decades. It is now his son's turn on the stage,
but it remains to be seen how quickly the new king can emerge from his father's shadow
and establish an independent reign.
Prague, Czechoslovakia, 1966, in an official visit, then-Prince Sihanouk reads a speech while the young Sihamoni stands waiting behind him.
Strolling around Phnom Penh, it's a little hard to tell who's King of Cambodia. King
Norodom Sihamoni's portrait decorates various ministries. So does King Norodom Sihanouk's.
Larger-than-life shots of the former dancer grace the waterfront, but his father's
face benignly watches from the palace front gates.
Official palace protocol:
"When there is enough room, there should be three pictures, Sihanouk, Sihamoni
and Queen Monineath," said Prince Thomico Sisowath, Sihanouk's nephew, who has
been tipped to become the new Palace Minister. "When there is not enough, then
just Sihamoni and Sihanouk."
When Sihamoni took the throne, he began a new royal legacy: multiple kings.
"I expect that Sihanouk will be sensitive to the danger of overshadowing the
king in public, at least," said Craig Etcheson, a political scientist from Johns
Hopkins University in Washington D.C. "It is not only in the minds of citizens,
but in Cambodian law, that there will be two kings for a period."
Sihanouk is a tough act to follow. The "father of Cambodian independence,"
an ex-head of state, the former king is an institution. Opinions vary regarding how
large a role Sihanouk will play in his son's reign, but most experts agree that he
won't soon be forgotten by the populace-or government.
"I expect that Sihanouk will remain a power to be reckoned with in the palace
for some time to come," Etcheson said. "It will be interesting to see how
long it takes for Sihamoni to emerge from his father's influence."
A decisive issue will be what exactly Sihanouk's self-appointed "advisory"
position entails. Many who know father and son expect Sihanouk and Sihamoni to take
on a teacher-pupil relationship.
Sihamoni, they say, has always been an obedient son.
"Even as a child, Sihamoni was very calm and well-behaved, not a 'turbulent'
young boy," said Kek Galabru, whose mother was the royal governess. "He
always thought his parents were the best thing in the world."
By all accounts, the young prince developed a warm bond with Sihanouk, visiting his
father often while he was exiled in China from 1970-75. The two shared a love of
music and films.
"Sihamoni is the artistic side of King Sihanouk," Thomico said.
Their mutual affection only strengthened during the Khmer Rouge years, which the
family spent together under palace arrest. Five of Sihanouk and Monineath's children
were killed. Sihamoni was a great support to his father and did all he could to help
his parents-from raking leaves to throwing away tree branches, Galabru said.
"It was a nightmare, but he stood by his parents," she said.
In recent years, Sihamoni has remained faithful, even if his quiet demeanor often
takes a backseat to Sihanouk's more voluble demeanor.
"You cannot compare him to Sihanouk," said San Soubert, former Constitutional
Council member. "Sihanouk has a big personality and his son cannot try to imitate
Soubert mentioned that, although father and son were generally formal with each other
in public, Sihanouk would sometimes tease Sihamoni. During one dinner in Beijing
when the prince was in his late 20s, Soubert said Sihanouk joked that his son was
"too serious" and should take more girlfriends.
Sihamoni accepted the chiding good-naturedly, Soubert said.
Given their history, the two should work well together, with father taking the lead,
insiders say. Both are hard workers and want what's best for the Cambodian people,
"Sihanouk will continue to play an active role in the kingship," said Soubert,
"but I think it will be complementary."
Others believe that Sihanouk will be careful to make sure his son develops a strong
public image, while still calling the shots himself.
"Sihanouk is very clever," Galabru said. "He will play the role behind
the curtain, but Sihamoni will be the official king." She added that by early
October Sihanouk had already taken his royal title off his letterhead.
Julio Jeldres, Sihanouk's biographer, said the fact that Sihanouk did not attend
parts of the coronation ceremony demonstrated his desire to let Sihamoni enjoy the
"I do not think that King Sihanouk will overshadow King Sihamoni," he said.
"He loves his son too much to do that."
Or perhaps he has other ambitions. Etcheson pointed out that Sihanouk abdicated the
throne in 1955 to exercise more direct influence on Cambodia's political affairs,
and there is some speculation he might be using a similar tactic this time around.
"Sihanouk promised he wouldn't get into politics," Soubert said. "Maybe
he will change his mind."
Whether or not he does, Sihanouk will continue, in some way, to influence the development
of Cambodia-and his son's reign.
"Sihanouk is not replaceable, that's for sure," Thomico said. "It's
not the wish of Sihamoni to replace his father, only to succeed him."