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Royal watchers ponder 'what's the deal?'

Royal watchers ponder 'what's the deal?'

SPECULATION is rife that a deal may have been struck between King Norodom Sihanouk

and Hun Sen which involves the monarch refraining from abdicating the throne before

next year's elections and agreement on the Royal succession, according to diplomats

and other Palace watchers.

Both subjects were almost certainly discussed at a meeting in Siem Reap between Sihanouk

and Hun Sen before the King's Oct 25 departure for Beijing, sources say.

"It seems a deal was done," said one Phnom Penh diplomat, noting that Queen

Monineath was probably a major player behind the scenes.

"The issue of abdication was certainly discussed," agreed a Cambodian observer.

A statement by Prince Norodom Ranariddh that he would renounce any claim to succeed

King Sihanouk on the throne in favor of his half-brother Prince Norodom Sihamoni,

has only added to the speculation.

"I personally am too passionate, I am too much of a politician, and too outspoken

to be a reasonable and successful king...definitely, I am no candidate for the throne,"

Ranariddh said in a Nov 14 radio interview with Voice of America, adding that he

supported Sihamoni's candidancy.

Prince Sihamoni, the eldest son of King Sihanouk and Queen Monineath, is currently

the Cambodian Ambassador to Unesco in Paris.

While Sihamoni has been hailed as one of the more likely candidates for succession,

he has previously said he has no interest in taking the Throne.

Sihamoni has long been the CPP's top choice to succeed his father, according to party

sources and Monarchy watchers, and King Sihanouk himself has referred to this in

the past.

In a February interview in his monthly bulletin, the King referred to a decision

by Hun Sen and the CPP to "elect" Sihamoni to the throne or to "slightly

modify the 1993 constitution to make possible the election of Queen Monineath Sihanouk

as reigning Queen".

"[He] would have a very good chance of being elected," King Sihanouk said.

But the King added that he believed Sihamoni would decline to take the Throne.

One diplomat confirmed that, following a CPP congress in January this year, the party's

honorary president Heng Samrin privately acknowledged the CPP's selection of Sihamoni.

However, sources close to the Royal family maintain that, in the recent past, King

Sihanouk has privately lobbied Hun Sen and other CPP leaders to ensure Queen Monineath

would be chosen.

"She has been with the King for many years, shares his vision and knows a lot

about high politics and affairs of the states," said one source close to the

King.

According to the Constitution, the task of electing a new king after Norodom Sihanouk's

death or abdication will reside with the Council of the Throne - a seven-member independent

body. But analysts maintain that the CPP is likely to dictate the Council's verdict.

In recent months, the King has said repeatedly that he wants to abdicate - a move

that Hun Sen strongly opposes.

"In Siem Reap, Hun Sen wanted some assurances that the King would not step down

from the Throne and into politics," said one Cambodian observer who maintains

Hun Sen fears Sihanouk's popularity.

Despite recent public statements by the monarch, many observers believe that the

King has no intention to retire quietly.

"He is an energetic and articulate politician who's been at the helm of Cambodian

politics for decades... Is there any point just to quit for the sake of retirement?"

questioned a Royal observer.

Another Cambodian analyst agreed.

"I think the King is looking for people who could form a political platform,

so that once he abdicates he can play an active role to try to put an end to his

people's suffering and be remembered as the great reconciler of a divided nation,"

the analyst said.

A further issue, say observers, is that of exiled Prince Norodom Ranariddh and a

possible Royal amnesty for him.

Western analysts pointed out that, in the circumstances, it is not surprising the

King would not want to upset Hun Sen by granting an amnesty to Ranariddh.

"In the past the King has not granted amnesties that he knew would sour his

relations with Hun Sen," said one diplomat, referring to Princes Norodom Sirivudh

and Chakrapong, both forced into exile by Hun Sen.

Already, diplomatic circles in Phnom Penh suggest that the monarch privately favors

an agreement in which Ranariddh be excluded from any deals involving the return of

the self-exiled politicians.

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