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Abdication: How to fill the vacancy of the Throne

Abdication: How to fill the vacancy of the Throne

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

in Cambodia?

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.


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