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Political princes gone royal

Political princes gone royal


Following their demise at the polls, members of the royal family have been called to the palace for service that observers say could restore their image

Photo by:
Heng Chivoan

Prince Ranariddh speaks to supporters and reporters after his return from two years of self imposed exile in September.

AFTER a year in which the ruling Cambodian People's Party dramatically consolidated its control over the Kingdom, the once politically powerful royals  find themselves treading water, eager for firm ground. But where?

"The royals have to rebuild their image," said political veteran Prince Sisowath Thomico, a former high-ranking Funcinpec official who founded the royalist Sangkum Jatiniyum Front Party in 2006 and still regularly comments on national issues.

Thomico was one of 26 members of the royal family who were recently appointed to, or promoted within, the King's advisory council, in a wholesale move that could clear the way for their complete removal from politics.  The Constitution prohibits officials from holding a post in the royal council and government at the same time.

"We have not yet shown the benefits of our experience that we have to offer outside politics. But it's a matter of will," he said, arguing that an exit from politics offered the Cambodian monarchy a chance to serve his nation in a new, apolitical way more suited to a constitutional monarchy.

"There are many ways to be involved in the life of the country. It's now for the royals to find out how they can best serve the country," he said, adding that the exit of royals from politics would "only be a great loss if we can't use our skills for the country's benefit".

He identified humanitarian work as an ideal cause for royals to take on, given their ability to mobilise interest and resources.

While he said he "will go on writing papers and stating my opinions on the major issues affecting the country", he insisted he has not missed

the grind of daily politicking nor the factionalism or back-door deal-making that he says makes politics in the Kingdom as much a messy game as a social service.

A pragmatic move

For Thun Saray, director of the local rights group Adhoc and a regular commentator on social and political affairs, the withdrawal of royals from politics came not from philosophical choice on their part, but simply because they recognised their hand.

"They're on their way to losing all the support they used to have. They've seen they cannot continue in politics. If they still had success in politics, they would not have left the scene yet," he said.

But for Thun Saray, their political failures have ramifications beyond the results of the polls.

"If they involve themselves (in politics) and are not successful, it can seriously affect the status of the monarchy, and it could end up being finished, as happened in Nepal and other countries," he said, adding that when the monarchy stays out of politics, it is more likely to win respect.

A political prince gone royal

The most political of all of Cambodia's princes, Norodom Ranariddh, whose career has been in free fall for nearly a decade, was promoted to King Norodom Sihamoni's most senior adviser - a position, his supporters note with pride, that officially carries a rank equal to that of prime minister.

The move may come at a good time for the Prince, who only recently returned from two years in self-imposed exile in Malaysia after fleeing the country to avoid a jail sentence for embezzlement.

"He has to have a neutral position if he's going to help the people and help himself," said opposition parliamentarian Yim Sovann. "In politics, his popularity has gone down a lot."   

"In the past, he has said one thing and done another. He has betrayed people. But he's been around a while and has experience, and is aware of what is wrong and right, even if he sometimes acted wrongly," Yim Sovann said. "This is his last chance to do something for the country. Now is the time for him to try to improve his image."

And perhaps the Prince is taking the hint. While he remains tight-lipped on his boss's plans, Chea Banboribo, the Prince's personal spokesman, said Ranarriddh intended to focus on "social causes" and "higher ideals" - though he would not specify which ones or how he would pursue them.

But for some royals, such as Sisowath Chakrya, a self-described artist, the recent promotion from a low-level royal advisory role to one of the top spots was a welcomed "upgrade" but bore little impact on his vocational aspirations.

"Since infancy, I've been an artist. I'm not really a politician," said Chakrya, who had served as an adviser to Prince Ranariddh during his presidency but has not counted among the more politically minded royals.

The royal's pledge to pursue social gains for the population while steering clear of power struggles may not necessarily signal the demise of the political prince, however.

The separation between the monarchy and government in Cambodia has always been blurred. Norodom Sihanouk, the figure credited with achieving the country's independence from France, was adept at crossing between the two arenas, depending on what the situation dictated.

And while they've been dethroned in politics as of late, it would be unthinkable for the royals to leave politics altogether, said Prince Sisowath Sirirath, since they've always been "deeply involved in the country's state of affairs", and in times of trouble the population has looked to them "to lead the struggle". 


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