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King revels in celebrations after a "difficult year"

King revels in celebrations after a "difficult year"

K ING Norodom Sihanouk turned 74 on Oct 31 after a year of personal setbacks, facing

an uncertain future for himself and the Monarchy.

"It's not been an annus horribilis but it's been a difficult year. It's a year

that's given him a lot of worries," said one Western analyst, noting political

and health problems that have plagued the King since his last birthday.

Sihanouk's woes raised concerns about the future of the Monarchy, with the King himself

sounding an ominous note in February when he said his Chinese astrologer had predicted

he would die at age 74.

But it was a sprightly King Sihanouk who seemed to show little concern about entering

that fateful year in early morning birthday celebrations at the Royal Palace.

The King bustled about greeting guests, most of them high officials in traditional

emerald-green garb, and he laughed when monks ceremoniously doused him with cold

water.

Despite his larger-than-life presence, analysts said the King's role is on the wane.

"[His role] has become less important compared to a year and a half ago,"

said one Asian diplomat. "Because of his declining health and long stay away,

the center of power has been shifting away from the Monarchy... The King has lost

much of his influence."

Sihanouk has always stressed that the 1993 Constitution which restored the Monarchy

provided for the King to reign rather than rule, but most analysts believe he has

always harbored ambitions of playing more than a figurehead role.

"The King would like to exercise more authority," said a senior European

diplomat. "He may well have doubts about whether the Monarchy will survive after

him."

In his 74th year just past, the King has seen his half-brother Sirivudh arrested

for planning to kill Second Premier Hun Sen; and got involved in the power-sharing

row between the CPP and Funcinpec coalition partners. He was forced to deny a Royal

plot against Hun Sen, who warned he would use force to stop any attempt to break

the government apart.

But the Royal eclipse was most prominent when the King announced recently his intention

to release all of Cambodia's criminals. Faced with criticisms from Hun Sen's quarters,

he retracted the general amnesty, which was ironically prompted by his most important

and controversial gesture of the year - his pardoning of dissident KR leader Ieng

Sary from a 1979 death penalty.

"The [prisoner] amnesty had nothing to do with human rights or the conditions

of prisons. It was about Sirivudh, and it was cloaked in the mass amnesty,"

said one Asian analyst.

He said the King's failure to successfully exercise his sole power under the Constitution

showed just how weak he was.

The King had earlier told British author William Shawcross: "I am like a piece

of ham in a sandwich, sandwiched between the opposition and the government... It's

not a delicious sandwich, it's a very uncomfortable sandwich."

Sihanouk's health has been a good news/bad news issue: his doctors said that he'd

beaten cancer but had arterial and coronary problems. In May he suffered a mini-stroke.

Sihanouk's health has left many wondering who could succeed him.

"The King has served as a binding force. Because of the personality and character

of Sihanouk, succession is a hard issue," said the Asian analyst.

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