Civil war may have temporarily banished the monarchy from Cambodia, but the founding document of the modern Kingdom is the biggest threat today to the King’s future relevance
Students wait for King Sihamoni to pass on Independence Day, 2007.
Just as two decades of civil war in Cambodia disrupted the royal line itself, it also broke a link between generations when it comes to respect and love for the royal family.
Though its borders have always shifted, Cambodia had been a kingdom for hundreds of years when then-prime minister Lon Nol abolished the monarchy and established the Khmer Republic in 1970.
While deposed King Norodom Sihanouk remained ever-present in Cambodian politics during the two decades of civil war that followed, on his return as King in 1993 he found his power greatly diminshed by the new Constitution.
King Norodom Sihamoni inherited this diminished role for the monarchy on his coronation as King in October 2004.
Ya Eem Chea, a 23-year-old senior in banking and finance at the Royal University of Law and Economics, said Constitutional limits on the King's power were regrettable.
"The King and the Royal family should be more involved in economic, social and religious matters in the country, but they cannot go against the Constitution at all," she said.
She pointed out the important role the monarchy had always played in shaping Cambodia. Retired King Norodom Sihanouk in particular had been an indefatigable figure during his reign, she said, achieving many things for Cambodia, including independence from France in 1953.
Due in part to these constitutional limits, while older Cambodians continue to hold the Cambodian Royal family in high esteem, many young Cambodians question the royalty's relevance, said Tha Piseth, a media studies sophomore at the Royal University of Phnom Penh. "Young people of my age do not really care or know about the King or his family because they do not know the history of Cambodia very well," he said.
The king ... should be more involved in economic, social and religious matters.
But the 20-year-old said the King and the Royal family still had a huge role to play in shaping the country's future and helping boost its economy, culture, traditions and politics.
Lyda Chea, a 22-year-old English-language student at the Institute of Foreign Languages, said that as the royalty became less active, there was a danger they would be forgotten entirely.
"If they're becoming increasingly less active, we can forget if there's a king here," she said. "I am not sure if there is another king in line for the future ... and every Cambodian like me is concerned that without the King, the country could run into chaos."
Educating the young
Professor Sambo Manara, a teacher of Cambodian history at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, blamed the education system for what he said is a diminishing respect for the King and Royal family among young Cambodians.
"From the past until now, Cambodian people have always given a high value to the king because many good things came from kings," he said.
Although the King today does not hold executive power like the monarchs in the past, he said, he still has an important role as protector of the Cambodian people.
"To Cambodians, having a king is like having a big umbrella,"he said.
"We don't want to predict that Cambodia will not have a king. The concept of having a king is very important for Cambodia because his presence aids in its development. "