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Reign of the quiet king

Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihamoni sits on his throne beside his crown and sword during his coronation ceremony at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh on October 29, 2004
Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihamoni sits on his throne beside his crown and sword during his coronation ceremony at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. Today marks the 10th anniversary since the King was formally sworn in as monarch. AFP

Reign of the quiet king

The King eats alone.

After he wakes in his en-suite bedroom in the Royal Palace, he either skips breakfast or has a small snack before launching into the obligations of the day. He has a light lunch and, for dinner, when he isn’t playing host, just fruit.

Ten years ago today, King Norodom Sihamoni was crowned after his father, the charismatic Norodom Sihanouk, abdicated for the second and final time. The new king was bathed by his parents in water from Phnom Kulen and carried through the palace gardens on a palanquin. A conch was blown and fireworks lit up the sky.

It was a splashy start to what has been a quiet decade.

Little is known about Sihamoni, but interviews with advisers and close associates paint a picture of a reflective, deliberate and cultured man who never wanted to be king, but took on the role graciously, keeping his old friends close and appeasing traditional enemies.

He is an abstemious king, a religious king, but far from an almighty one, as his father and the god-kings before him had been.

He shares his lifelong passion for the arts with his father, a prolific filmmaker. But unlike Sihanouk, who delighted in French wines and gourmet cuisine, Sihamoni is a man of simple tastes.

“Sometimes he has chocolate – when he breaks his rules – especially chocolates from Europe,” said a source close to the palace, who asked not to be named.

Oum Daravuth, an adviser to the secretariat of the Queen Mother Norodom Monineath, said lunch is “rice with fish and vegetables”, and that Sihamoni is “always eating alone”.

As head of state, the King has a tight schedule, explained Julio Jeldres, the former personal secretary and official biographer of Sihanouk, in an email.

He receives official delegations and letters from ambassadors. He meets visitors who come to the country as guests of the government. He reads and signs decrees and laws.

Twice a week, he meets with Prime Minister Hun Sen for an official government briefing.

“Then there are the official openings of major infrastructure projects that His Majesty may be required to officiate and, last but not least, His Majesty must officiate at all Buddhist ceremonies in the Cambodian calendar which, I should say, there are many,” Jeldres wrote.

On Buddhist holidays, Sihamoni gets up before dawn and makes offerings to all the religious statues in the grounds of the Royal Palace.

“He usually does it alone – with, of course, the royal bodyguards,” said a source close to the palace.

State dinners are held, but there is no sign of Sihanouk’s famous soirees dansants, when the King Father and his band of princes played 1930s swing as guests quaffed vintage champagne and danced until dawn.

King Norodom Sihamoni greets Prime Minister Hun Sen at the Royal Palace during the King’s formal coronation in 2004
King Norodom Sihamoni greets Prime Minister Hun Sen at the Royal Palace during the King’s formal coronation in 2004. AFP

Sihamoni’s pleasures are less earthly.

“He does a lot of reading, a lot of meditation – that’s his main thing,” said a source close to the palace. “He’s quiet – a simple king, to me.”

Friends from his school days in Prague visit regularly, and he still speaks fluent Czech, as well as French, English, Khmer and a few words of Mandarin. He flies twice a year to Beijing for medical checkups with his mother, and the palace also has a Chinese chef.

“The King does exercise normally, like riding a bicycle and walking around the palace,” Daravuth said.

Teacher and student
Born in 1953 to Sihanouk and the Queen Mother, Sihamoni was a young boy when his father sent him to Prague to study music and classical dance. He spent most of his life abroad; though for two years he was imprisoned by the Khmer Rouge with his parents in the Royal Palace.

After the regime fell in 1979, he moved to France, where he eventually became a ballet teacher. In 1993, he was appointed Cambodia’s delegate to UNESCO.

Great Supreme Patriarch Bour Kry, leader of the Dhammayuttika Buddhist sect, has known Sihamoni since his childhood. The two grew close during the year Sihamoni spent as a monk in France in the 1980s.

In Wat Botum, surrounded by golden Buddhas and fanned by a prostrating monk, Kry chewed menthol eucalyptus sweets and described his student.

“Of course, the King had a very simple life, as other monks who lived in the pagoda. He never announced that he was King Sihanouk’s son, but other people knew he was the son of a king.”

After leaving the monkhood, Sihamoni carried on an ordinary life. He rode the subway in Paris while working as a ballet instructor. But when he assumed the throne, he gave up dancing altogether, according to Kry.

“In Asian culture, a king cannot do whatever he wants. He needs to work and respect the royal rules – such as working to help people in the country because he, the king, has a responsibility to them.”

After the coronation, Sihamoni continued to pay frequent visits to his teacher at Wat Botum, Kry said, inclining his head towards the palace, a five-minute walk away.

“It was normal that when King Sihamoni became the king of the country [he kept in touch], because he always kept relationships with people like me – other people who he knew before.

“This shows that he is kind, and he is a good model who has a polite way with people.”

Kry is not alone in his favourable view of Sihamoni.

“I cannot make any other judgment than that Sihamoni is a dedicated servant of his people,” wrote Sihanouk biographer and Cambodia historian Milton Osborne in an email. “He is cultured and disciplined.”

‘Stacked with CPP members’
Nonetheless, under Sihamoni’s rule, the monarchy as a political institution has effectively ceased to exist.

After last year’s disputed elections, in what would turn out to be one of his biggest political tests, Sihamoni opened parliament despite the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party – which was boycotting the swearing-in – begging him not to do so.

But the process of de-politicising the monarchy began years earlier.

The power-sharing agreement between the royalist Funcipec party, led by Sihanouk’s second-born son, Prince Norodom Rannariddh, and the Cambodian People’s Party after the 1993 election set the stage for years of political wrangling.

By 2004, Prime Minister Hun Sen had made several threats to abolish the monarchy entirely.

“Anointing Sihamoni made the best of a bad situation,” said journalist Sebastian Strangio, author of the newly released Hun Sen’s Cambodia.

A young then-Prince Norodom Sihamoni at his school in Prague receives his dessert after lunch in October 1962
A young then-Prince Norodom Sihamoni at his school in Prague receives his dessert after lunch in October 1962. AFP

“It secured the monarchy’s survival into an uncertain future, but it also involved giving the CPP what it had always wanted – a figurehead king who would stay within the limits of the constitution.

“It’s unfair and unrealistic to expect Sihamoni – a sensitive soul who has dedicated his life to the arts – to grapple with a political tiger like Hun Sen.”

A former diplomat who asked not to be named said that the ruling party has stacked the Ministry of the Royal Palace with CPP loyalists.

“It completely controls it, and nothing happens without the approval of the minister of the Palace, who also has the title of deputy prime minister and the customary royal title of Samdech Chaufea Veang.”

Government spokesman Phay Siphan called those comments “baseless”, adding that Royal Palace Minister Kong Sam Ol had “no power to decide anything, just administration and providing services from the government to the Royal Palace”.

Unlike the royals in Thailand or the Netherlands, the royal family does not boast a private fortune and is dependent on the ruling party for its annual budget.

Daravuth, the royal adviser, said it was pointless to criticise Sihamoni for his neutrality – the King simply obeys the constitution.

“Without the King, would the CNRP sit in the National Assembly?” he asked. “The King has played an important role to ensure national unity and facilitate the nation.”

Sihamoni makes frequent trips to the provinces to inaugurate buildings and projects and to talk with citizens. He also takes a diplomatic interest in the news.

“Once a month, the King comes to me or other royal [family members] in the palace to find out outside information from the people. For example, during a crackdown on demonstrations, the King asked me to find out the victims and provide a donation,” Daravuth said.

At the end of each day, Sihamoni retires to his residence, which is a few metres from his mother’s. Once again, he prays and meditates.

Sometimes he listens to classical music, especially Beethoven. American films – comedies and romances – keep him amused.

His dancing days are over, a source close to the palace confirmed.

“Unless he does it in his room.”

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY VONG SOKHENG AND VANDY MUONG

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