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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Emerging from the shadows

Emerging from the shadows

emerging.jpg
emerging.jpg

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

it."

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,

Galabru said.

"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

limelight.

"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."

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