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Comment : Sihamoni will make a good king

Comment : Sihamoni will make a good king


Cambodia has a new king and ASEAN has witnessed yet another smooth transfer of power.

Let us hope that this will be the regional norm henceforth.

His Majesty King Norodom Sihamoni greets young well-wishers.

What made the announcement that former Prince Norodom Sihamoni will be the new King

of Cambodia different from other regional transfers of power is that, unlike in the

latter cases, foreign commentators and even Cambodians themselves are not sure what

kind of a king he will be. He has been overseas in Prague, Pyongyang and Paris all

his adult life, and those times he was in Cambodia, he kept a low profile.

Maybe it is because of this that some news reports greeted the royal succession with

headlines such as 'Ballet dancer becomes King'. That's catchy no doubt; it might

even give the impression to the uninitiated that strange things happen in these far-flung

Asian countries - especially one which habitually receives bad press, like Cambodia.

Not that it matters much, but the point is that King Sihamoni was also a professor

of classical dance at the Marius Petipa Conservatory, the W.A. Mozart Conservatory

of Paris and the Gabriel Faure Conservatory, apart from being Cambodia's ambassador

to UNESCO, the United Nations cultural organisation.

What little we know of the new king is what we hear of him from others. We know for

certain that, like his father and many others in the royal family, he has a great

love of music and dance. Father Sihanouk sings well and has composed many songs,

several of which are popular hits like 'Phnom Penh, Phnom Penh'. Half-sister Princess

Bopha Devi, until recently the Minister of Culture and now a senator, was an acclaimed

prima donna in the Royal Cambodian Ballet. Uncle Prince Norodom Sirivudh plays the

saxophone in the royal family band. The list goes on.

Some of those who have worked with King Sihamoni at Unesco have also described him

as extremely polite and caring, and someone not given to an extravagant lifestyle.

His apartment in Paris was said to be modest.

In a rare interview King Sihamoni gave, he mentioned how when the royal family was

under house arrest during the dark Khmer Rouge days, all the royals had to help grow

fruits and vegetables in the palace grounds to supplement the fortnightly food supply

which the Khmer Rouge provided. In addition, as he was younger and healthier, he

regularly cleaned the Throne Hall, which will now have a greater significance for


King Sihamoni will not be flamboyant like his father, but will exude quiet charm

and be more predictable. He clearly demonstrated this in November 2002, when he deputized

for his father at the important Independence Day ceremony. The guests present were

surprised when the royal limousine pulled up and it was then-Prince Sihamoni who

stepped out. He did very well, and later, when he came to shake hands with the assembled

diplomatic corps - almost all of whom were meeting him for the first time - he left

behind a very favourable impression of himself.

One of King Sihamoni's main concerns now must be to allow his people to know him

better. There are enough official functions to enable this, but I would think that

he will be outgoing and pro-active and will probably visit the various provinces

and, in particular, rural communities.

As a constitutional monarch, King Sihamoni will be above politics. But there will

be times in Cambodia's fractious politics when the king has to play a unifying role.

Former King Sihanouk had that authority, an astute political sense and a deep understanding

of domestic power play which many believe the new king lacks.

This brings to focus the mentor role Father Sihanouk will have. It will be difficult

for him to remain quiet or unaffected by political developments in the country. However,

the chances are that he will try to remain in the background, difficult as it might

be for him to advise the new king. This has a great advantage in that, instead of

the sometimes knee-jerk reaction from the palace, the parents and son will mull over

a problem and consider the options open to them.

I would think that King Sihamoni will slowly create his own set of privy counsellors

consisting of trusted aides and technocrats to provide him the options.

King Sihamoni has all the attributes to be a great king. What he needs for now is


HE Verghese Mathews, the former ambassador to Cambodia from the Republic of Singapore,

is a visiting fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.


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