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Quiet King Sihamoni faces fierce political fray

Quiet King Sihamoni faces fierce political fray

quiet.jpg
quiet.jpg

Dealing with local politicians will be King Norodom Sihamoni's greatest challenge,

according to longtime friend Dr Kek Galabru.

Group photo at a banquet in the Grand Palace of the People, China, 1990. King Sihanouk (center) has on his right Madame Chou En Lai, next to her is Queen Monineath. Rear second from left is Princess Bopha Devi next to the family governess Mrs Pung Peng Cheng (Kek Galabru's mother - her real name was Siv Eng Tong), with her husband on her left, next to Prince Sihamoni. Others in the group are high-ranking Chinese politicians and their wives.

"He has compassion for the people, but he will have a tough time with the politicians.

He should show that he is really neutral because we all know how difficult and manipulative

Hun Sen can be," said Dr Galabru, president of the local human rights NGO LICADHO.

According to the Constitution, the King must invite the Prime Minister and Council

of Ministers twice a month to the palace for reports on the state of the nation.

"I hope this will happen, because times are different now and maybe Hun Sen

would like to show a willingness to co-operate with the new king," Galabru said.

"I believe Ranariddh can also co-operate well with his younger brother and maybe

Hun Sen will also respect the Constitution," she continued. "Because Sihamoni

is new, everybody will want to test him. Sam Rainsy has known Sihamoni for a long

time. They will all be wanting to court him."

The Galabru family has had a long-standing and close relationship with the Sihanouks

dating back to when Galabru's mother became the royal governess in 1956.

"My mother, who died three years ago, was born on October 31, 1919. She has

the same birthday as King Sihanouk. She was popularly known by her husband's name

Mrs Pung Peng Cheng, but her real name was Siv Eng Tong. Sihanouk's mother, Queen

Kossomak, needed a governess for the grand-children. She asked a relative who was

my mother's teacher and she recommended her. So she got the job to look after 12

children, all except Prince Ranariddh, who was adopted by a sister of King Suramarit."

Every morning she delivered the children to school and after school she helped them

with their homework. Until 1958 she was a teacher. Then, when the king allowed women

to stand for parliament, she was elected the first woman member in Cambodia, representing

a constituency in part of Kandal province. At the same time she was elected the Speaker

of Parliament. She was also Minister of Social Action. In 1963 she was elected an

MP again and became Minister of Health.

Galabru said her mother did not see the 1941 coronation of Sihanouk because at that

time the family lived at Prey Veng, and only came to Phnom Penh in 1955. Sihanouk

declared independence from France in 1953, and then abdicated as king in 1955.

"That coronation was a very big event with many elephants in the parade,"

she recalled.

The first time Galabru visited the palace was in 1958 for Princess Sorya Roeungsy's

ninth birthday. Galabru was 16 years old.

"I met Sihamoni there with all the others. It was very informal and relaxed.

Sihanouk was never formal around children, he allowed them to be free. Sihamoni was

5, he was so nice and cute and always obedient to his parents, as they all were,"

she said.

"All the Sihanouk children were encouraged in the arts. Sihanouk played music.

His mother was the patron of the royal ballet. Ranariddh's mother was a ballet dancer.

And Buppha Devi was a wonderful apsara dancer.

"I have stayed in touch with the family. I went to the same school as Sihamoni.

Then about 1962 when he was about nine years old he went to Prague, to learn ballet.

All their children were sent away to school in other countries quite young."

Galabru never lost touch. She would cross paths with him abroad and see him on visits

at home. "After the 1970 Lon Nol coup when they moved to China he used to visit

his parents in Beijing and I met him there on a family visit in 1975," she explains.

"In 1993 after the election, when the Government asked him to be Ambassador

to France, he refused. He was very modest about his abilities. Finally, he accepted

the post as a UNESCO Ambassador. I used to visit him when he lived in France. He

never changed. After Sihanouk became King again in 1993, Sihamoni stayed the same:

modest, simple, friendly, caring about the welfare of his people. He is very like

his father, and he has huge respect for his parents. I never heard him criticise

them and I never heard them argue.

"One story I heard from a driver at the Cambodiana Hotel just a few days ago,"

she says. "He said two or three years ago in Siem Reap he saw Sihamoni and a

friend arrive in a car. It was raining heavily and there was floodwater. They got

out of the car to go into a pagoda to pray, and Sihamoni just took his shoes off,

rolled up his trousers and walked through the water. When they discovered who he

was people were horrified and wanted to put him on a bicycle but he refused."

She said Sihamoni came to her apartment in Paris after 1993 "and I asked him

where he parked his car, and he said he came on the metro, public transport. That's

how he liked to travel."

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