On 24th September 1993 Cambodia witnessed two simultaneous landmark events in its
recent history: the promulgation of a new constitution and the concomitant re-enthronement
of its present August King. The country has since become a constitutional monarchy
with pluralistic liberal democracy as its system of government, and these two components
shall remain forever the core of its political system and not be subject to any changes.
The Cambodian monarchy is an elective monarchy whereby a Throne Council would elect
a successor within seven days following the death of the reigning monarch. Any descendant
of King Ang Duong, King Norodom and King Sisowath is eligible for such elections.
Considering the age of His Majesty King Norodom Sihanouk, now 82 coming to 83, there
has been for years a growing public demand for a law on the Throne Council with a
view to ensuring a smooth succession. Unfortunately, until this year, the issue of
succession had been very much taboo at least for Prime Minister Hun Sen and Assembly
President Norodom Ranariddh. These two leaders recently submitted a draft bill on
that Council to the King at their recent audience with Him in Beijing.
To this issue of succession has been added the issue of abdication following the
King's on-and-off hints at his intention to relinquish the Throne, especially this
year while residing in China. The King's intention to abdicate has been a cause for
public concern and has generated continued debates as well as political speculations.
It has become a constitutional issue when Government Spokesman Khieu Kanharith claimed
that the King cannot abdicate since He is Head of State for life, while some experts
have claimed otherwise. As if adding fuel to the debates and speculation, the King
signed on 21 September 2004 a decree on a form of address he wished to be addressed
after his abdication, which, he added in the decree, "will take place in a not
too distant future."
This issue of abdication has created yet another uncertainty about the situation
in Cambodia and even about the survival of the Monarchy, and it is all the more so
when the country's Constitution is silent over the vacancy of the Throne such an
abdication would create.
Does the Throne Council have any power to fill that vacancy? The answer is negative
since this Council is constitutionally empowered only to elect a successor to the
reigning King after His death. An ordinary law as provided for in the Constitution
to determine the organisation and functioning of that Council cannot be extended
to cover abdication. Abdication and the procedure to fill the vacancy of the Throne
need to be provided for in the Constitution itself. The Throne Council needs to be
constitutionally empowered for this purpose and the Constitution needs to be amended
to that effect.
The Constitution of some other constitutional monarchies and their actual experiences
in filling the vacancy of the Throne could shed some light on the need for and the
nature of the procedure to fill such a vacancy in Cambodia.
In Malaysia, the monarchy is elective. The Supreme Head of the Federation (King),
Yang di-Pertuan Agong, is elected by the Conference of Rulers, Majlis Raja-Raja,
for a term of five years. He can resign or be removed and replaced by the same Conference.
In Belgium, the Constitution provides that, if the King is incapable of reigning,
the government as a whole will assume the role of Head of State. In 1990, upon the
notification by King Baudouin of His refusal to sign the Abortion Bill adopted by
Parliament, the Belgian Government declared him incapable of reigning and acted as
Head of State to sign that bill into law (3 April). Soon after (5 April) the Parliament
assembled to declare the end of the King's incapacity thereby enabling him to resume
his constitutional role.
In Thailand, there are clear constitutional provisions for the vacancy of the Throne.
Thus Section 23 of its 1997 Constitution says:
"In the case where the Throne becomes vacant and the King has already appointed
His Heir to the Throne under the Palace Law on Succession, B.E. 2467, the Council
of Ministers shall notify the President of the National Assembly. The President of
the National Assembly shall convoke the National Assembly for the acknowledgment
thereof, and the President of the National Assembly shall invite such Heir to ascend
the Throne and proclaim such Heir King.
"In the case where the Throne becomes vacant and the King has not appointed
His Heir under paragraph one, the Privy Council shall submit the name of the Successor
to the Throne under section 22 to the Council of Ministers for further submission
to the National Assembly for approval. For this purpose, the name of a Princess may
be submitted. Upon the approval of the National Assembly, the President of the National
Assembly shall invite such Successor to ascend the Throne and proclaim such Successor
"During the expiration of the term of the House of Representatives or the dissolution
thereof, the Senate shall act as the National Assembly in acknowledging the matter
under paragraph one or in giving an approval under paragraph two."
Thailand's constitutional procedure to fill the vacancy of the Throne seems to be
in conformity with the constitutional principles laid down by the English Parliament
("the lords and commons") when it adopted a procedure to fill the vacancy
of the English Throne upon the abdication of King James II in 1688. Based on the
sovereignty of the people, that Parliament then proclaimed that King James II "broke
the original contract between king and people" and created the vacancy of the
Throne. Upon His abdication all powers of the state went back to the English people.
Since the Parliament were "the trustees and representatives" of those people,
it therefore made use of these powers and appointed King William and Queen Mary to
fill the vacancy created by the abdication of King James II.
That precedent was used in Britain in more recent times when King Edward VIII abdicated
in 1936. He had to give assent to a Declaration of Abdication Act adopted by the
Parliament and, witnessed by His three younger brothers, signed an Instrument of
Abdication to renounce the Throne for Himself and His descendants.
Are the constitutional provisions and experiences above relevant to the situation
First, there are no moral or legal grounds for the claim that the King cannot abdicate
and should remain King for life until the end of his days, unless He is treated as
a slave. In the history of nations many Kings, Queens and Emperors, including our
present August King, have abdicated voluntarily or otherwise (some 38 of them according
to Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2004), and several have even been
re-enthroned, including again our King.
Secondly, as mentioned earlier, Cambodia is a pluralistic liberal democracy in which
all sovereign powers belong to its people, and these people entrust these powers
to their representatives, Members of the Parliament, through democratic elections.
It is very much like Britain though the British monarchy is hereditary while the
Cambodian monarchy is elective.
As in Britain, in the absence of any constitutional provisions on the procedure to
fill a vacancy of the Throne should the King abdicate, the sovereign powers of the
nation should revert to the Cambodian people and ultimately to their Members of Parliament.
This Parliament should make use of all the sovereign powers of the Cambodian people
they represent to elect a new King or Queen among eligible candidates specified in
the Constitution to fill that vacancy. It could adopt this procedure as a convention
or as a constitutional amendment.
The British precedent could serve as a model for the convention while the second
paragraph of the Thai constitutional provision mentioned above, mutadis mutandis,
for the constitutional amendment. It should be added that if a constitutional amendment
is contemplated, it might as well be broad enough to deal with the vacancy of the
Throne as a whole whether it is created by the abdication, death, or disappearance
of the King. It would not matter so much whether the power to fill that vacancy is
constitutionally entrusted to the Throne Council so long as the Parliament adopts
that constitutional amendment.
Either through a convention or through a constitutional amendment, such a procedure
to fill the vacancy of the Throne should lessen or put an end to the present uncertainty
created by the King's hints at his own abdication. And this should be good for the
health of the Monarchy itself and for the country as a whole.