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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Sihamoni's dignified settling in

Sihamoni's dignified settling in

Former King Norodom Sihanouk and Queen Mother Monineath Sihanouk returned to Phnom

Penh on Thursday June 23 accompanied by their son King Norodom Sihamoni, who flew

to Beijing a few days earlier to travel home with them. The King's open devotion

and show of respect for his parents and their obvious love for him on this and other

occasions have touched many hearts.

Sihanouk, who left for medical treatment in January after having passed on the crown

to Sihamoni in October 2004, had been away for almost six months and much has happened

in the interim in the country, including in the public perception of the new King.

Sihamoni, the reluctant monarch, who was little known on assuming the throne a few

months back, has settled in with charm and dignity and endeared himself very quickly

to his people. He has surprised most observers and even some Cambodians themselves,

in the manner and the sincerity of his outreach and his concern, like that of his

father before him, for the poor and the marginalised in his country - and there are

many of them.

From the onset it was very clear that Sihamoni was extremely keen to know his people

and that he wanted them to know him. He has more than succeeded on both counts and

the increasing public demonstrations of affection for him are indicators of this.

In a post-conflict third world society that is Cambodia, bedevilled as it is with

unceasing political infighting, Sihamoni is fast becoming a rallying point for national

unity and national reconciliation.

One of his earliest comments on assuming the throne put politicians at ease with

his unsolicited undertaking not to directly involve himself in the political arena.

He has kept his word. He has also made good his promise to go to his people by visiting

many of the provinces.

Early last month, on a visit to the four northwestern provinces, he stopped in Pailin,

the former stronghold of the dreaded Khmer Rouge, who had imprisoned him and his

parents in the Palace at Phnom Penh and who were responsible for the deaths of several

of his immediate relatives. There was no rancour on either side as thousands of former

Khmer Rouge soldiers, now mostly farmers, came out to greet the new King. He embraced

them with his by-now-much-photographed smile and outstretched hands.

All this achieved in less than eight months. Small wonder that Sihanouk, on the recent

occasion of his favourite son's 53rd birthday, proudly congratulated Sihamoni for

"serving as a bridge uniting the Cambodian population to understand one another

and to strengthen their cooperation."

Despite these expressions from the public, there are still a few skeptics who argue

that the King has not been really tested and that without Sihanouk around, the new

King would be weakened and would falter. There were more who thought so initially.

However, those who have now come to know the new King confide that this concern is

misplaced.

The King's first nine months has generated the popular belief that with this support

of the people he will grow in his role as a unifying and a rallying force for Cambodia,

and that should anything happen to Sihanouk there would be enough trusted advisors

and experts at Sihamoni's service, if need be.

While Sihanouk should undoubtedly be credited for the smooth succession process and

for the expert tutelage of his son, it was the new King's own efforts that gained

him the affection and respect of the Cambodian people.

Moreover, Sihamoni has proven that his father's preference for him to succeed the

throne was well-placed.

A related observation is that Sihanouk has in his inimitable way ensured that the

monarchy did not end with him, and that in Sihamoni the Cambodian people have a worthy

successor. So long as the King remains above politics and continues to relate to

his people, he will be a natural rallying point and a unifying factor.

In this context, the royal father and son have disproved a favorite theory of the

late King Farouk of Egypt. There is the old story of how Farouk, after he was forced

to abdicate his throne in July 1952, boldly predicted that by the end of that century

there would be only five Kings left in the world - the King of Hearts, the King of

Diamonds, the King of Clubs, the King of Spades and the King of England.

If Farouk were still around, he should not be surprised that King Sihamoni of Cambodia

reigns with dignity.

The writer, Singapore's former Ambassador to Cambodia, is presently a Visiting Research

Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) in Singapore.

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