Cambodia's monarchy has undergone many changes over the years, with the 'universal
sovereigns'and 'absolute rulers' of the past giving way more recently to King Sihanouk's
'constitutional monarchy.' Even though his formal political role has been reduced,
Sihanouk remains a powerful and stabilising force in Cambodian political life and
has been regularly called upon by both Cambodia's politicians and international leaders
to resolve recent crises. Sihanouk's role in promoting the negotiations which culminated
in the 1991 Paris agreements was decisive. Following both the 1993 and the 1998 elections,
he was prevailed upon to resolve the political deadlock over the formation of the
The monarchy rejected
At the same time, however, the monarchy has often been perceived as a threat by
Cambodia's political strongmen. Repeated efforts have been made to eliminate it,
starting with King Sihanouk's overthrow in 1970 by his own government, again during
the Khmer Rouge era when Sihanouk was under house arrest, and in the 1980s when the
ruling State of Cambodia regime resisted efforts by armed groups, including the royalist
faction founded by Sihanouk, to overthrow it.
Even though reinstated as King in 1993, Sihanouk has since been politically marginalised.
Second Prime Minister Hun Sen and other anti-royalists often criticise him for interfering
in government activities, while others interpret his reluctance to exercise his full
constitutional powers as a sign of weakness.
Other members of the royal family - Prince Ranariddh, Prince Chakrapong (Ranariddh's
half-brother) and Prince Sirivudh (the former Foreign Minister) - have also suffered
political hardship and humiliation at the hands of Hun Sen, resulting in at least
temporary exile from Cambodia.
This has been viewed publicly as a campaign to discredit the royal family and to
keep it out of politics.
Schools of thought
One view of the monarchy is of an antiquated irrelevant part of political life. Proponents
of this view want a purely democratic form of government where state affairs are
run by elected institutions rather than individuals or privileged groups; all citizens
should have equal access to top leadership positions. Moreover, it is argued that
rural people remain loyal to the monarchy largely through ignorance and should be
educated in the virtues of republicanism. The 1970 coup essentially emerged from
the discontent of republicans and intellectuals who accused Sihanouk of autocratically
handling state affairs and suppressing dissent by force.
The second school of thought argues that the majority of Cambodians still believe
in the monarchy and that to abruptly break the ties between them and the monarchy
would prove destabilising. The people look on Sihanouk, who led Cambodia to independence,
as a patriotic leader and the 'father' of the nation. Despite the on-going campaign
against the monarchy, public polls indicate that the King remains the most popular
Cambodian political personality. Out of respect for the people's will, therefore,
Cambodia is likely to remain a constitutional monarchy with the King as head of state.
A non-political role?
If the monarchy is to be retained as the majority wish, certain constitutional articles
should be amended to reflect contemporary Cambodian realities. First, many feel that
for the monarchy to unify the nation, it requires the respect of all concerned parties.
Therefore, it should not get involved in political power struggles or in formal party
Second, succession procedures should be clarified. A crown prince or princess (there
is a strong case for women to be allowed into the royal line) should be identified
far enough in advance to allow for the grooming of new monarchs and to prepare the
people psychologically. Moreover, the title 'Monarch for Life,' as employed in the
Constitution, should be modified to allow a monarch to abdicate if he or she should
wish. In July 1997, Hun Sen rejected the King's wish to abdicate in protest at Prince
Ranariddh's violent overthrow, accusing Sihanouk of insubordination before the supreme
law of the land.
As the next millennium approaches, Cambodia's monarchy has a potentially crucial
role to play in unifying the nation and promoting peace. For this to come about,
however, it needs a clear vision and purpose and must itself adopt a proactive attitude
towards reform and adapt to present-day realities. However, it is the Monarchy's
very intimacy with Cambodian politics today, which poses the biggest challenge, as
it seeks to define a new, more independent role for itself.