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King mulls abdication

King mulls abdication

King Norodom Sihanouk has threatened to abdicate, unconfirmed reports state, in a

move that could spark a constitutional crisis. The King, who is currently in Beijing

receiving medical treatment, is said to have written two letters to that effect.

In the first, which was drafted on September 11, he announced his decision to abdicate,

then demanded of the government one of two options: either amend the Constitution

to allow the Queen to rule as regent, or convene the Throne Council and elect a new

king.

The second letter, which was written the following day, apparently dropped the first

option at the express request of Queen Norodom Monineath.

The King has threatened to abdicate several times in the past few years, and it seems

the impasse surrounding the Throne Council has played a part in his decision this

time.

In July this year the King said he wanted to see the law regulating the Throne Council

passed as soon as possible. Cambodia's Constitution states that the Council must

elect a new king within seven days of the death of the reigning monarch. However

the law which defines how it will operate has not been tabled.

The King's wishes were rejected outright by Prime Minister Hun Sen, who controls

the Throne Council. He said the general election scheduled for July 2003 was more

important.

Opposition MP Son Chhay has drawn up a draft Throne Council law and discussed it

several times with the King. He told the Post that he had spoken with an unidentified

person who had seen both letters - signed but undated - while in Beijing.

"I received this information from a high-ranking official close to the Royal

Palace," Chhay said. "The point is that we are worried that the abdication

will lead to a political crisis, because our Constitution says nothing about abdication.

"The letter could be released any time if there is no guarantee about the law

of the Throne Council," Son Chhay concluded.

And Ambassador Julio Jeldres, the King's official biographer, said it was his understanding

that the King had written his abdication letter.

"I understand His Majesty will return on 9 October 2002 and may announce his

abdication after his birthday," Jeldres wrote in an email to the Post. King

Sihanouk's 80th birthday will be celebrated between October 30 and November 1.

He said the decision followed a wrangle over his Monthly Diplomatic Bulletin in which

he lamented that the country had become a "beggar state".

At the time Khieu Khanarith, secretary of state at the Ministry of Information, told

Associated Press that the King's comments were "unfair". Jeldres said that

was impudent.

"In any country where a ... secretary of state dares to challenge the words

of the Head of State, he would be promptly asked to resign or publicly apologize,"

Jeldres wrote. "But in today's Cambodia anything goes, and this episode shows

convincingly that Hun Sen and the CPP want to keep the King quiet."

Jeldres added that the King's well-publicized "health reasons" were likely

not the full story behind such a decision.

"The King remains deeply concerned about the fate of what he calls 'my children',

the less privileged in the countryside ... who often these days don't have enough

to eat," he said.

He added that the recent scandal over Cambodia's 'flag of convenience' tag, and the

rise in trafficking of humans and drugs were regarded by the King as 'treasonous'

activities which he hoped the government would tackle.

"The Constitution gives the King the role and title of 'legitimate representative

of the Cambodian people', yet when he tries to raise issues of concern they treat

him with contempt, in the name of 'Cambodian democracy' of course," said Jeldres.

The King's reported threat would not be the first: similar threats came in 1995,

1996 and 1997. In an interview with his own Monthly Diplomatic Bulletin five years

ago he dismissed the constitutional crisis some predict could unfold.

"It's not true. Our Constitution, whether it dates from 1947-1955 or from 1993,

states the same thing: the King reigns until the end of his life. But a King (whether

he is Khmer in Cambodia or English in Great Britain) is always allowed to abdicate

if he so desires or if he has to do it for some reason or another. So I abdicated

voluntarily in 1955, and in Great Britain Edward VIII abdicated in 1936," he

said at the time.

And in a more recent indication that abdication has been on his mind, he released

an open letter to the people of Cambodia on September 14.

"If one day I retire or abdicate, I am clear I must not have a [political] party,

and even until my life passes away, I am not to enter politics," he wrote.

The Constitution forbids the King from taking an active political role, as Cambodia

is a constitutional monarchy, where the King expressly reigns but may not rule. If

he were no longer King, though, he likely would not be bound by the provision.

Observers say the ruling CPP would be worried if the King were to re-enter politics,

as he is still revered in the countryside. Such a move, albeit unlikely, would no

doubt revive the flagging fortunes of Funcinpec, the royalist party he formed two

decades ago.

The Post received no response on the matter despite repeated requests to senior Palace

staff in Beijing and Phnom Penh.

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