Fifteen years after the publication of the first edition of The Royal House of Cambodia, royal biographer Julio A Jeldres has released an update, revealing new details about the life of King Norodom Sihamoni, and a first look at the next generation of Cambodian royals.
Speaking to The Post last week about his 310-page undertaking, the Chilean biographer said he hopes it will make the royal family more relatable and inform readers about the history and realities of a monarchy that survived decades of war and genocide.
“Those who read this book will understand and appreciate, I hope, the real character of the Cambodian monarchy and the leading role played by [the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk] to maintain its independence as well as to modernize it,” Jeldres writes in his introduction, in which inextricably ties the monarchy with Khmer national identity.
The volume includes dynastic charts, explanations of standards and iconography, and a history of the family that dates back to King Ang Duong, who ruled until 1860. It features new research on the 13 years Sihamoni spent in the Czech Republic, where he went to school and studied dance, including interviews with friends in Europe. Indeed, writing about the present and future generations is where Jeldres breaks new ground.
“I also had to do a lot of interviews with the grandchildren [of Sihanouk] because there is not much material on them and I had to ask them to produce photos,” he said last week.
“I had known the senior generations of the family quite well, but the younger ones I didn’t know.”
The result is a “Royal Facebook” of sorts, with family photos and more casual snapshots of the life of the King, princes and princesses alike. One striking image shows a young Sihamoni dancing ballet against the backdrop of the Ta Prohm temple.
Jeldres notes the collection is far from exhaustive as a survey, as not everyone agreed to be a part of it.
For some, he suspects there was an aversion to retreading the past, which “brings back sad memories: the loss of family members, the loss of properties and so on”.
On top of that, the task of including absolutely every royal would require a much larger volume. The lineage of all the living princes is covered, with the exception of some of the descendants of Sihanouk’s eldest son, Prince Yuvaneath, who are in America.
“I decided to concentrate on the ones that are here in Cambodia and working in different professions and are contributing to the development of the country,” he said, noting that all the living and deceased children of Sihanouk are described in as much detail as could be gathered.
Jeldres also played a pivotal role in re-establishing connections that might have otherwise been lost. Prince Norodom Ekcharin was thought to have died as a child in 1976 during the Khmer Rouge regime but had in fact fled to a refugee camp in Thailand before ending up in Sweden. Growing up, he didn’t realise that his father was Prince Yuvaneath.
“He was so young that he didn’t know . . . He knew that his father was a Norodom prince, but he didn’t remember that he was Yuvaneath,” he said.
Published in English but with a plan to translate the text into Khmer, Jeldres hopes readers will realise the royal family consists of more than just the King and the Queen Mother in the Royal Palace, supported by an annual budget passed by the National Assembly.
“I think they are going to realise the royal family is not as they think, because not all the royal family lives in the Royal Palace, you see. They have to find their own ways of living,” he said. “There are some that are not living very comfortable lives.”
The Royal House of Cambodia (Sleuk Rith Institute: 310pp) is available at Monument Books for $37 (plus VAT).