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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - King stirs abdication pot

King stirs abdication pot

The announcement of King Norodom Sihanouk's retirement has sparked confusion over

whether the ailing monarch has officially abdicated the throne and when he will return

to Cambodia.

The muddle over the King's intentions had journalists racing to Phnom Penh International

airport on Oct. 7 after Assembly President Prince Norodom Ranariddh said the King

would return that afternoon.

The Monarch did not show up and there were conflicting official versions both in

Phnom Penh and coming from Beijing as to what was afoot.

In a letter addressed to top religious and political leaders Sihanouk announced his

retirement and asked the Throne Council to begin the process of appointing his successor.

The letter was read by National Assembly President Prince Norodom Ranariddh on the

Assembly floor on the morning of Oct. 7

"I have informed you clearly about my personal life in my letter dated October

6, 2004, indicating to retire... this retirement is not new," wrote the 81-year

old monarch from Beijing, where he has been receiving medical treatment for most

of this year.

"Please, the chief monk, the three Samdechs and all the compatriots who are

the masters of the country allow the Throne Council to discuss and select an appropriate

prince in my Royal family who is suitable and would be loved by the people,"

wrote Sihanouk.

"So, it is not necessary for Samdech [Chea Sim] to ask me to approve or sign

any Royal decree or law because Norodom Sihanouk has retired and cannot say approved

or not approved."

While some observers took the king's letter to mean he effectively abdicates the

throne, other palace watchers saw the move as royal brinkmanship, designed to prompt

the government into action without actually relinquishing the last of his fading

power.

At a meeting with Sihanouk last month, Prime Minister Hun Sen and Funcinpec President

Prince Ranariddh agreed in principle to change the voting of the Throne Council to

a simple majority and both leaders have publicly endorsed Prince Norodom Sihamoni

as the heir-apparent.

Sihamoni recently left his long-term post as Cambodia's cultural ambassador to UNESCO,

increasing speculation that he would succeed his father.

"I don't know any other candidate besides him but I hope only Sihamoni will

be selected as the king, so we'll see in the next few days who will be the king candidate,"

said Princess Neak Meneang Norodom Diyath, a member of parliament.

Prince Ranariddh, after reading the king's letter to the National Assembly added

his own interpretation of Sihanouk's words.

"According to the letter we have just reviewed and that I have just read [His

Majesty] has already abdicated," said Ranariddh.

"It could be taken that way," said Lao Mong Hay, a political analyst. "It

depends on whether the top leaders agree with his retirement or not."

But Sihanouk's official biographer warned of a constitutional crisis if laws are

not rushed through to deal with the king's abdication.

"Twice legislation has been put before parliament to handle this and twice the

process was blocked," said Julio Jeldres in Bangkok.

Cambodia's constitution sets out the process for replacing a king who dies but does

not deal specifically with abdication.

"I've heard that draft legislation has been prepared but it's unclear when this

can be passed by the National Assembly, they don't meet very often," said Jeldes.

"Nothing is clear at all," he said.

That confusion extended to the political scene, with Ranariddh blaming the opposition

Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) for the king's decision to retire, saying a letter posted

on Sihanouk's website warning of protests against the king if he returned had caused

the widely-revered monarch to stay in Beijing.

Ung Bun Ang, SRP spokesman, said the party had not posted the letter and, like the

Cambodian People's Party and Funcinpec, had written to the king asking him to reconsider

his decision.

"We believe that he still has a role to play ... if he remains on the throne

it would benefit the whole country," said Ang, who feared the political uncertainty

might be used as cover to target their members.

Broadcasts on local media on October 6 and phone calls to party headquarters the

next morning about alleged SRP demonstrations regarding the king surprised the opposition,

who deny organizing any protests.

It remains unclear when Sihanouk will return to Cambodia after failing to arrive

as expected on October 7.

A spokesperson for the king in Beijing said the he was still undergoing medical treatment

and no date had been fixed for his return.

Yet another palace insider told the Post that as of 5pm October 7, Beijing sources

confirmed that Sihanouk would return to Phnom Penh on the morning of October 8.

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