King Norodom Sihamoni has set a foundation for the long-term survival of the monarchy in Cambodia by staying out of politics and mending bridges burned by former King Sihanouk
King Sihamoni has stayed out of politics, helping to smooth relations with Prime Minister Hun Sen (left) and the government and
ensuring the continued survival of the monarchy.
Writing freely about royalty in the Kingdom
Can you get in trouble for insulting the Cambodian King? Under Thailand’s notorious lese majeste laws, one can be jailed for failing to stand up for the national anthem or publicly criticising the monarchy. But sources close to the Royal family say that while open insults could get you into hot water, similar laws in Cambodia have been tempered by a precedent of open expression. The Constitution itself paints an ambiguous picture: Article 7 states that the “person of the King shall be inviolable”, and Article 18 that “royal messages shall not be subjected to discussion by the National Assembly” – but both are far from the sort of punitive laws that exist in other monarchies. Julio A Jeldres, King Father Norodom Sihanouk’s official biographer, said that the government is much less strict than in Thailand or Jordan, where people are still serving lengthy jail terms
for lese majeste offences. “In Cambodia, King Sihanouk was the first to signal that he was not going to send to jail writers or journalists that were critical of him,” he said. In his own writings on the Royal family, he said he was “completely free” to write whatever he wanted, but “naturally, I am always aware that there are certain boundaries”. But how far can one push the envelope? Australian historian Milton Osborne’s book Sihanouk: Prince of Light, Prince of Darkness was banned for about four weeks in 1994 for its less than charitable assessment of the then King. But even the author himself cast light on the casual nature of the “ban”: “One day, soon after the book was released, someone wandered down from the palace and said, ‘I don’t think you should sell that’, and so they took it off the shelves,” Osborne said in an interview with the Post last year. “A month later it was back.”
FIVE years on from King Norodom Sihanouk's intricately scripted departure from the Cambodian political stage, analysts and royal family members say his abdication has marked a subtle but enduring shift in the role of the monarchy.
Enthroned by the French colonial authorities in 1941 as a pliable young figurehead, Sihanouk quickly grew into an assertive and wily political operator, entrenching himself at the centre of political life through his Sangkum Reastr Niyum - or People's Socialist Community. Unpredictable to the last, the tempestuous monarch announced his surprise abdication on October 7, 2004, leaving behind a political involvement spanning more than six decades.
His son Norodom Sihamoni, selected by the Throne Council the following week to succeed him, was cut from an altogether different cloth: A dance instructor and actor, the new King had only a fleeting contact with political life, spending a brief spell as his father's personal secretary in the early 1980s.
But nearly five years on from Sihamoni's coronation, observers say the King's reign has represented both continuity and change - withdrawing royalty from active politics, but advancing it as a symbol of national reconciliation.
"His Excellency King Sihamoni is doing his very best to renew that respectable position both for the nation, the people of Cambodia and the members of the royal family," said Prince Sisowath Sirirath, second deputy president of Funcinpec.
Sirirath said that between the monarchy's abolition by the republican regime in October 1970 and the reinstatement of the monarchy in 1993, Cambodians had forgotten what previous monarchs were like and that Sihamoni had re-established the monarchy's traditional role as an "umbrella" under which Cambodians could unite.
Julio A Jeldres, Sihanouk's official biographer, agreed that despite the attempt of successive governments to "diminish" the central role of the monarchy, the new King had proven a worthy successor.
"King Sihamoni has followed up on his eminent Father's example and has adopted the same way of dealing with present circumstances in Cambodia as well as establishing close links with the more disadvantaged of his compatriots," he told the Post by email this week.
The love of the monarchy, the love of the King, is there
in the hearts of the Cambodian people.
In addition to his role as a figurehead, the five years since Sihanouk's abdication have also seen a steady withdrawal of the King and royal family from political life.
Ros Chantraboth, deputy president of the Royal Academy of Cambodia, said that unlike Sihanouk, who bucked against the constitutional requirement that the King "reign but not rule", Sihamoni has grown into the role of figurehead.
"Since he became the Cambodian monarch, His Majesty Norodom Sihamoni has kept far away from political issues," he said. "The King is preparing himself to become a real symbol of the Khmer nation and of national reconciliation."
The five years since Sihanouk's abdication have also seen a continuing decline in support for the Kingdom's royalist political parties, Funcinpec and the Norodom Ranariddh Party.
Even before 2004, the royalist Funcinpec - first founded by Sihanouk in 1981 with the aim of opposing the Vietnamese military occupation - was on a steady decline. Prince Norodom Ranariddh, another of Sihanouk's sons, led the party to a stunning victory in the UN-backed elections of 1993, clinching 45 percent of the popular vote and 58 seats in the National Assembly, but the party has lost ground at every election since, dropping from 43 seats in 1998 to 26 seats in 2003.
The party lost 24 of its remaining seats in 2008, winning just 5 percent of the national vote. In addition to electoral defeats, last year also saw the retirement of royalist stalwarts Ranariddh and Prince Norodom Sirivuth.
Despite recent losses, royalist politicians said there was still a role for royals to play in Cambodian politics.
"Given a fair and honest chance in the elections, Funcinpec will regain its position," said Prince Sirirath. "We believe in democratic values, we believe in respecting human rights [and] we believe whatever we sign with our partners is of great value. Things like this continue to be in the mind of the Funcinpec leaders."
He added that Cambodia's peace and stability could best be secured by royalist leaders that established continuities between the past and the present.
"The people of Cambodia need a member of the Royal family to lead them," he said. "The love of the monarchy, the love of the King, is there in the hearts of the Cambodian people, and [if you] shake the monarchy you will be shaking the ground, the roots of the support of the people."
But others said the decline since the election victory of 1993 has seen an increasing disillusionment on the part of voters as to the aims and intentions of the country's royalist politicians.
Jeldres said Funcinpec won the 1993 election thanks to its clever use of Sihanouk's image, but that its missteps had "alienated" its base of supporters. But although rural support for the monarchy remained strong despite electoral defeats, Jeldres said generational changes had possibly made the royalty less relevant to younger Cambodians, who "do not seem to have been given much knowledge" about the monarchy's past role in Cambodian affairs and thus were "less inclined" to see it as a national institution.
Outspoken Prince Sisowath Thomico, who formed the short-lived Sangkum Jatiniyum Front Party in 2006, said the Royal family could best serve the nation as part of "civil society", getting involved in humanitarian projects, economic development and diplomacy.
"We have many things to achieve in order to give a better image of the royals in Cambodia, and we are in the process of doing so," he said.
He added that the withdrawal of Royals from politics - and the depoliticisation of the monarchy more generally - was a vital step in ensuring their ability to act in the country's best interest.
"If the royals are not involved in politics, their actions cannot be seen as political actions aimed at gaining political support,"he said. "It is a fundamental part of the problem: If the Royals are suspected of getting involved in politics, then whatever they do will be limited. [Withdrawal from politics] is the sine qua non condition for them to succeed."
The fear, he added, was that the presence of "royalist" parties - however successful - implied that all competing parties were anti-royalist, an assumption that could easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy. By creating a perceived link between the royalist opposition and the throne, royalist politicians have dragged the institution into its conflicts with the ruling Cambodian People's Party.
In an October 17, 2005, speech, following years of constant and sometimes violent conflict between the CPP and Funcinpec, Hun Sen hinted at the possibility of abolishing the monarchy altogether and suing members of the Royal family, including Thomico, for libel.
Jeldres noted that even in 2006, national TV and radio aired strong criticisms of the King Father, broadcasting Republican-era songs accusing Sihanouk of ceding land to the Vietnamese communists in the 1960s. The government also banned the use of the King Father's image in campaigning for last year's national election - reflecting a continuing desire to "erode" the image of royalty among voters.
"These threats were done in a context in which Funcinpec pretended to be royalist," Prince Thomico said. "If Funcinpec is seen as a royalist party, then the other parties competing against Funcinpec are not. And the future of the monarchy [will be] seen to rely on the success of the party, which is not true."
Ros Chantraboth agreed, saying that Sihanouk's domination of political life in the 1950s and 1960s had unwittingly dragged the monarchy into the political fray, culminating in the monarchy's eventual abolition in 1970.
"I think Sihanouk's politics contained the seeds of their own destruction because he made some mistakes, and it pushed some people without any real power to overthrow him," he said.
But Sihamoni's turn away from his father's hands-on style, he said, had established a firm basis for the long-term survival of the monarchy. "If the King stands above the Cambodian people, I think it will bring Cambodia political stability," he said.
"This is the new evolution of the monarchy."