​Prodigal Prince Ascends Throne | Phnom Penh Post

Prodigal Prince Ascends Throne


Publication date
22 October 2004 | 07:00 ICT

Reporter : Julio A Jeldres

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On 14 October 2004, the Cambodian Throne Council unanimously elected His Royal Highness

Samdech Preah Baromneath Norodom Sihamoni as Cambodia's new king, replacing His Majesty

Preah Bat Samdech Preah Norodom Sihanouk Varman, who decided to retire because of

his age and serious health problems.

Prince Sihamoni performs in Pyongyang during the early 1970s. He led a group of artists in a representation in honor of Kim Il Sung, President of the Democratc People's Republic of Korea. His Majesty interpreted the Korean dance entitled "The Happiness of the Good Harvest". Above right: Then-Prince Sihamoni visits the Cambodian Embassy in Paris, 1989. King Sihanouk (seated) and behind him (from left) Princess Norodom Buppha Devi, Prince Sihamoni and Baik Min, Director-general of the Film Studios of the DPRK.

His Majesty Preah Karuna Preah Bat Samdech Preah Baromneath Norodom Sihamoni was

born in Phnom Penh on May 14,1953. His Majesty is the son of His Majesty King Norodom

Sihanouk and Her Majesty Queen Norodom Monineath Sihanouk.

His Majesty completed his primary schooling at the Norodom School in Phnom Penh.

In May 1962, Samdech Norodom Sihanouk wrote to President Antonin Novotny and Prime

Minister Viliam Siroky of the then Socialist Republic of Czechoslovakia that "in

view of the existing relations of mutual friendship and close cooperation binding

Cambodia and Czechoslovakia, he wanted to ask the friendly government of Czechoslovakia

to kindly assume the task of furthering the education of my son Norodom Sihamoni,

who is nine years old."

In his letter to the Czech authorities Samdech Sihanouk requested no special treatment

for Prince Sihamoni, in fact the contrary: "I would request that my son, whose

younger brother has just been sent to study in Moscow, is enrolled in one of Prague's

elementary schools and studies under the same conditions as other Czech children

and continues his studies in the subjects that are of interest to him and in which

he shows talent. He will be accompanied by the son of a member of my Throne Council

- HE Kou Roun - who is the same age as my son. I would request you, Mr. President,

to provide security for both children, who will be accommodated at the Cambodian

embassy in Prague".

But Samdech Sihanouk had already an intuition that his son was interested, even at

such young age, in the arts and in his letter to the Czech Prime Minister he wrote:

"My wife and I feel that our son has a distinctive predisposition for the arts.

My wish would be that his education be focused in music and classical dance, so that

one day he would be able to help his country to include these forms of Western art

in its cultural development. I am convinced that Czechoslovakia, whose high world

reputation in the field of music is doubtless, can serve as an initiator and teacher

in this area".

The Czech authorities were very happy to accommodate the request by the Cambodian

Head of State and Prime Minister. Viliam Siroky wrote to Samdech Sihanouk on June

1, 1962, in the following terms: "Monseigneur, I have the honour and the pleasure

to acknowledge receipt of your letter by which Your Royal Highness has informed us

of his intention to send his son, Prince Norodom Sihamoni, to study in the Socialist

Republic of Czechoslovakia. The President of the Republic has received with pleasure

your request and has already given all the necessary instructions to the pertinent

Czech authorities for the education and teaching of your son and his school classmate

correspond to the wishes expressed in your letter. Art and music have a high level

in Czechoslovakia and our teaching methods have a high reputation around the world".

Prince Sihamoni was granted a Czechoslovakian governmental scholarship, and, while

accommodated at the Cambodian embassy in Prague, he attended a Czech elementary school,

starting in the 3rd grade in September 1962.

According to declassified documents from the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in

1966, the President of Czechoslovakia asked the relevant authorities for a report

on Prince Sihamoni's studies as Samdech Norodom Sihanouk was coming to Czechoslovakia

on an official visit.

According to the report, Prince Sihamoni concluded the 5th grade of elementary school

in Prague 6 in the school year 1964-65.

His father's assessment of his talents proved to be correct. It was reported that

Prince Sihamoni was not very good in mathematics, but excelled in the arts, so it

was decided he should continue in a school which focused on instruction of foreign

languages (French and Russian) in Prague 1.

The report states: "In the new school year 1965/6 he takes private ballet lessons

(in the National Theatre), lessons of piano and French language. Besides that we

asked the school director Novotna to act also as his preceptor, 2-3 hours per day,

if necessary. He seeks any possibility to perform in theatre (ballet The Nutcracker),

he applied on his own initiative to the casting and was chosen for a TV production

of the children's opera Brundibr, so he is very active in his afterschool time. He

spends the money he earns in the theatre and TV on gramophone records (especially

Czech operas). According to our information from Phnom Penh, during his vacation

Prince Sihamoni's mother asked him to repeat twice a week for 2 hours the curriculum

from the last school year, in order not to come back unprepared to Prague.

His school knowledge is good; for a foreigner very good. For his age, he has a highly

superior knowledge of music, especially opera, and also in the fields of literature,

dramatic arts and film. These predilections are always dominant and correspond to

his character, which is rather quiet, contemplative and, in relation to people he

does not know, reserved.

He remembers very well the books he reads (he read also many Czech books). He knows

most operas performed in Prague, and he knows practically all Czech actors. He has

his opinions on music and singing performances and individual productions. He organizes

music and opera evenings at home."

The report appreciated his excellent command of the Czech language, and his fondness

of the Czech environment, which, it was noted, "he likes very much and trusts."

Prince Sihamoni completed his studies at the school in 1967, and continued his high

school education in Prague.

In 1970, Prince Sihamoni obtained his high school certificate, while continuing his

dance, music and theatre coursework at the National Conservatory in Prague.

However, on March 18,1970, Samdech Norodom Sihanouk was overthrown in a coup d'etat

by Lon Nol and Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak. An order was sent to all Cambodian embassies

abroad that the prince, his parents and younger brother were not to be allowed to

travel back to Cambodia and any airline that allowed them on their flights to Cambodia

would loose their landing rights in Phnom Penh.

The Cambodian Ambassador in Prague promptly asked Prince Sihamoni to move out of

the embassy and informed the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Prince Sihamoni moved

to stay with the family of his former Czech elementary school teacher and her daughter,

who were given a larger apartment by the Lord Mayor of Prague in order to accommodate

the royal student.

In 1971, Prince Sihamoni obtained the First Prize in the course of classical dance

of the National Conservatory of Prague. He studied dance, music and theatre at the

Academy of Music Arts in Prague from 1971 until his graduation in 1975. Later he

left Czechoslovakia to join his father and to study cinematography at the National

Academy of Cinematography in Pyongyang. His stay in Prague has been documented in

a film made by the Czech authorities under the title "The other Little Prince",

which is a beautiful film joining together images of Cambodia and Czechoslovakia.

He then proceeded to undertake higher cinematography studies at the National Academy

of Cinematography of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea in Pyongyang.

His studies in Pyongyang were suddenly interrupted in April 1976 by a faked telegram

signed by Norodom Sihanouk but in reality sent upon the instructions of Ieng Sary,

the Foreign Minister of the regime, summoning him back to Phnom Penh.

His departure from the North Korean capital, where the prince was under the personal

guardianship of President Kim Il Sung, was so hasty that he did not have the time

to present his respects and express his gratitude to the President. On April 3, 1976,

Samdech Norodom Sihanouk wrote to President Kim Il Sung to explain what had happened,

thanking the President and stating the hope that Prince Sihamoni would be able, after

the celebration of the first anniversary of the "liberation of Kampuchea",

to return to Pyongyang and continue his studies.

This was not to be as the prince joined his parents and young brother as prisoners

of the Angkar. The prince recalls that during that time they were allowed to see

no one, had no staff to help them and that for food they had to grow vegetables and

fruits in the gardens of the Royal Palace. Twice a week, their Khmer Rouge guards

gave them rice and fish.

As the Vietnamese tanks approached Phnom Penh, the Royal family was moved to a smaller

house in central Phnom Penh but remained under close guard for fear that the Vietnamese

may try to seize His Majesty the King.

Then, in early January 1979, as Phnom Penh was about to fall, the King, Queen and

their two sons, aunt and a few other persons were taken to China by a special plane

sent by the Chinese authorities.

Prince Sihamoni served then as Private Secretary to His Majesty the King for two

years in China and North Korea, where His Majesty organized a liberation movement.

In 1981, the prince requested his parents' permission to travel to France and become

professor of classical dance and artistic pedagogy at the Marius Petipa Conservatory,

the Gabriel Faure Conservatory and the W. A. Mozart Conservatory of the city of Paris.

The prince formed his own troupe of dancers, known as Ballet Deva, which performed

pieces that had been choreographed by the prince himself. The group has appeared

in France, in China and the D.P.R. of Korea and has tried to keep Cambodia's cultural

heritage alive. The prince also made two ballet films, Dream and Four Elements.

In 1990, the prince became Director General and Artistic Director of the Khmer Cinematographic

Society "Khemara Pictures".

Following the Peace Agreements of October 1991, the prince was unanimously chosen

by the members of the Supreme National Council of Cambodia as Ambassador, Permanent

Representative of Cambodia to the United Nations and he presented his credentials

to then UN Secretary General Boutros-Boutros Ghali.

On August 30, 1993, His Royal Highness was Appointed Ambassador, Permanent Representative

of Cambodia to UNESCO, a post that he recently left in August 2004.

But his newly acquired diplomatic functions did not prevent His Royal Highness from

keeping up with his artistic talents. In 1992, the prince was the star of a new film

shot in Cambodia by his father King Norodom Sihanouk called My Village at Sunset.

During the 1994/1995 season of creations and new versions of the young ballet of

France, he created Duel, a ballet in which under the influence of Russian ballet,

he concentrated on giving an important role to men, who normally do not have such

a role in traditional Khmer dance.

He was elevated to the rank of Sdech Krom Khun (Great Prince) on 1 February 1, 1994,

and to the rank of Samdech Preah Baromneath on August 2, 2004.

His Majesty is fluent in Khmer, French and Czech. He has a good command of both English

and Russian.

HE Julio Jeldres is the Official Biographer of Samdech Ta Norodom Sihanouk

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