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
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
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.