P REAH Ang Mechas Prince Norodom Sihamoni, the King's most artistic son, avoids
the Royal limelight. Instead, he has devoted his life to dance. He is reportedly
the King's favorite son, not only because he has inherited his love of the art,
but also because they shared the darkest period of their lives: the Khmer Rouge
Sihamoni has lived in Paris since 1982, where he is a
classical western ballet dancer and teaches at the Conservatoire de Dance Marius
Petipa. For the past year, he has been Cambodia's Ambassador to UNESCO.
Born in May 1953, he is one of two sons of Queen Monique Monineath. The
other is Preah Ang Mechas Prince Norindrapong, born the following year. At the
age of eight, Sihamoni was sent to study in Prague. There, at the Conservatoire,
he concentrated on ballet, music, in particular the piano, and theater.
"Prague was a wonderful city when I was there in 1961, very animated,"
he recalled. "I went to primary school, and lived within the embassy for three
years. During the summer holidays, I came here for two months and studied
classical Khmer dance with my sister, Princess Bopha Devi."
He is, like
his father, a cosmopolitan man, who speaks impeccable French, as well as Czech,
Russian, English and Khmer. Soft-spoken, with refined manners and quiet charm,
he is single.
He has a close relationship with both parents, having spent
three years imprisoned with them and Norindrapong in the Royal Palace during the
Khmer Rouge period. Most of Sihanouk's children went abroad, although five
perished under the Khmer Rouge, together with the King's Laotian wife.
"Many people don't realize that we lost two sisters and three brothers
during the war, as well as eleven of their children," said Sihamoni.
"The four of us were imprisoned in the palace, together with three close
women friends of my mother.
"During that time, we saw no-one. We had no
staff, no cooks or gardeners. For food, we grew vegetables and fruit in the
garden of the palace. There were banana trees, we had plots, and we grew
everything. Twice a week Khmer Rouge guards came to the back door and gave us
rice and fish. We cooked everything ourselves. For our clothes, we wore black
clothes given to us by the Khmer Rouge. We washed everything ourselves.
"If we were ill, my mother treated us. She was marvelous." (The Queen
had been active in the Cambodian Red Cross, and was Honorary President from
1961, until the Lon Nol coup in 1970).
"She had a medical kit which she
had brought with her from China, and she would look after us. I remember one of
the women friends who was with us fell one day and cut open her head badly. My
mother went straight to her medical kit and got out instruments and parted her
hair like this," - he demonstrated on his own head as he described it - "and
cleaned up the wound, which was deep, and sewed it up. Later, when we were in
Peking, the doctors treated her."
"We were completely out of contact
with the outside world. My father listened secretly to a small radio he had, to
Voice of America, at night. So that was how we heard about the massacres and
about what was going on. But we did not know the extent of what was happening
beyond the palace. We did not know about Tuol Sleng. My father asked to be let
out to visit his country, to see his people, but they refused.
period was a very unhappy one, especially for our morale. My father's morale was
low. I got on with things. I am very physical, being a dancer, so I worked in
the gardens. I cleaned out the throne hall."
Sihamoni recollected the one
meeting he had with Pol Pot. "He was like a statue, cold, glacial, unreal. I
knew from the beginning that the Khmer Rouge were evil, that they were
After the coup in 1970 the royal family had fled to Peking. They
were still there when the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh on April 17,1975.
Sihanouk then came back as Head of State.
"We returned in September 1975.
There were many people who believed in what the Khmer Rouge were doing. My
brother Norindrapong supported them. But at the end of the war, when he saw what
had happened, he became psychologically ill. He is still ill,
Sihamoni remembered that when the Khmer Rouge heard that the
Vietnamese were approaching in 1978, they were afraid that the King would be
seized. They moved them from the palace to a nearby house for three months, said
to be the present Cafe No Problem.
"I don't know which villa it was,"
said Sihamoni. "I just remember that we were taken through narrow paths amid
lots of trees, to a villa where we were shut in."
After the Vietnamese
invasion in 1979, the Royal family left on the last Chinese airplane to Peking.
Sihamoni remained for two years with his parents in Peking, and in Pyongyang,
working as his father's secretary, as he formed the liberation army. "They
needed me. They had no one."
In 1982, he asked to go to France, where
there were many Cambodian refugees. He wanted to perpetuate and preserve
Cambodia's culture there.
"My parents knew that I was artistic. They
knew from an early age I wanted to dance, and they had always accepted that. So
when in 1982 I asked if I could go to dance in Paris, they agreed. Later I came
back and spent two months in the Liberated Zone with them, near the Thai border.
My father had a house there. Prince Ranarridh was there.
"For the next
ten years I performed and choreographed ballets with my troupe of ten dancers in
Paris, called Ballet Deva. We appeared at the Theatre de L'Empire, and also in
the provinces and in Germany. It was important to present our culture abroad, to
keep it alive. Culture had disappeared from this country."
He made two
ballet films, "Dream" and "Four Elements". He starred in his father's film, "The
Little Prince" in 1966, when he was 13 years old. Sihamoni, who looks much
younger than his years, then made a second film with the King in 1992, "Mon
"This summer we are going to make another film together, which
I will direct, called "Le Bonze". It is the story of a monk was who killed by
the Khmer Rouge, near Battambang. I want to stay in Cambodia for a while to be
with my parents."
Sihamoni is widely rumored to be a possible successor
to the throne. Sources close to the palace say he is the choice of Queen
Monineath. His eligibility is based on his political neutrality and the fact
that he is a patron of the arts and ancient Khmer culture and traditions. One
source says Sihanouk has secretly willed to him all the assets of the monarchy.
But Sihamoni denies the possibility of this role, claiming that he has
no wish to be King.
"People say things which aren't true. Firstly,
according to the Constitution, there is no inherited succession. The King is
chosen by the National Assembly. So it could be someone far away from the King.
It is not necessarily someone close in line to him. It's a democratic process.
What Julio Jeldres (the King's official biographer) has said is a lie. I don't
want to be King. I want to consecrate my life to culture, to choreography, to
film. The throne does not interest me. I have never wanted to be King. My father
does not want me to be King. If I were asked, I would say no."
to stay in France, the country which has most helped him. "I am faithful to my
friends and to the country. France gave me a chance. I am faithful to the
Conservatoire. I love dance. It's what I love most. I do not want to be in a
diplomatic or political role, although I want to serve my country, of course."
Now, since the elections, he emphasizes the work to be done here which
he will fulfill as ambassador to UNESCO.
"I am so happy that the war is
over and we can reconstruct our country. We have so much to do. Culture is so
important. It is the soul of the people. If culture disappears, I am afraid for
our people. I am afraid that culture will vanish. Everything is money, money,
money. We need theater, we need to train people, to train teachers. That is why
I work with UNESCO, trying to get schools started up in the countryside. We need
primary schools. Many people cannot even read or write. Our people need to be
educated and to work, for their dignity.
"Look at the Royal University
of Fine Arts. They need so much there. They are working in terrible conditions,
no light, no facilities. We have to improve all that. I am fighting for this at
He is anxious to record all the steps of Khmer classical dance
and music, with Princess Bopha Devi. "But she has health problems, too," he
Dance must evolve, he claims. "Dance has to move ahead in the
world. Of course, we must keep the strict classical tradition intact, but
another form, such as the folkloric dance, must open up, develop. It needs new
form. It is not free, it needs to be liberated. Western contemporary dance is
more exuberant, spontaneous.
"In "Duel" (the latest ballet he
choreographed and brought to Cambodia), I concentrate more on making the men
move, because men do not feature so strongly in Khmer dance. I have been
influenced by the Russian ballet. There is something of L'Apres Midi D'Un
Faun in Duel. Khmer dance is very sensual, even though it is sacred. Look at
the dancer's feet, as they touch the ground, slowly the skin makes contact, the
women move sensuously. And in Angkor, the apsaras are very sensual.
love contemporary dance. The greatest choreographer was Martha Graham. I like
Pina Bauche, the German choreographer. We are going to work together next year
on a dance and bring it here.
He believes passionately that Cambodia
needs external ideas to develop its culture, while at the same time maintaining
"Look at the countries around us, they have all lost their
cultural traditions, with the exception of Indonesia. It's all business and
"We talk about Angkor all the time, but too much emphasis is
placed on Angkor. Glorious as it is, it's the past. It is the witness of a great
culture, we must safeguard it. But now Cambodia needs other expressions."