Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni, approaching two decades on a powerless throne, finds himself caught in a political struggle between the country’s longtime strongman and a former opposition leader who has been forced into exile.
The row, which began with a public mud fight between Prime Minister Hun Sen and his political nemesis Sam Rainsy over who betrayed the nation, has thrown a spotlight on the European-trained former dance teacher who, as king, has preferred to stay in the shadows .
“I believe that King Norodom Sihamoni did not want the honor or glory of his predecessors. He didn’t have that much ambition or greed,” Oum Daravuth, one of Norodom Sihamoni’s advisers, told RFA. “The king doesn’t want his name to be as famous as others. He just wants to live in hiding; he wants nothing else.”
But the battle between Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy has broader implications than who wins a war of words. Hun Sen has threatened to disperse the rest of his political opposition, which dates back to Rainsy less than a year before a national election.
It has also reignited debate over the 69-year-old’s rightful role as constitutional monarch of a fractured parliamentary system that was slowly being deconstructed under Hun Sen’s rule.
While the king is legally obliged to rule as a national figurehead, leaving government to the Prime Minister’s National Assembly and Council of Ministers, some opposition figures have urged Sihamoni over the years to challenge Hun Sen’s oppression of their ranks.
But the king rarely responded to such requests, mostly staying in the royal palace, quiet and out of sight.
Upon ascending the throne in 2004, the king pledged to remain close to the Cambodian people and devote his days to promoting national unity.
“I will never live apart from loved ones,” Sihamoni said. “The royal palace will remain a glass house and there will never be an ivory tower for me. Every week I will spend several days visiting our cities, our country and our provinces and serving you.”
Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihamoni greets Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen during the annual Tonle Sap river water festival in Phnom Penh, Cambodia November 10, 2019. Credit: Reuters
The silent king
Sihamoni comes from a family that claims descent to the “God Kings” of Angkor when the Khmer Empire ruled much of Southeast Asia before being forced under Siamese, Vietnamese and eventually French rule.
His father, the late King Norodom Sihanouk, was also known as the “Father of Independence” for overseeing Cambodia’s break from French colonial rule in 1953. Sihanouk later led the shadow government of the 1980s, which resisted Vietnamese occupation after its army ousted the Khmer Rouge from power, and waged a civil war against the government of Hun Sen before UN-brokered peace elections were restored in 1991 .
Sihanouk abdicated in 2004 to ensure he had a say in choosing his successor. Prince Norodom Ranariddh, whose party won the 1993 UN-led elections but was forced into a coalition with Hun Sen, reportedly wanted the throne but Hun Sen preferred Sihamoni.
Less well known than his then-politician half-brother, Sihamoni, born in May 1953, was previously Cambodia’s UNESCO Ambassador and lived in France, where he taught classical dance. As a young boy he was sent to Prague to study music and dance and earned a master’s degree from the city’s music academy.
In 1975, when the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia, Sihamoni went to North Korea to study film. But he soon returned to Phnom Penh, where he was held captive in the royal palace with his father and queen mother Norodom Monineath until the fall of Pol Pot’s regime in 1979.
Since his accession to the throne, the son has embodied the principle enshrined in the 1993 constitution that the king “shall govern, but shall not rule”.
Cambodia’s clear ruler has been Hun Sen for more than three decades, and he recently announced plans to keep that power in the family and install his son Hun Manet as his successor after 2028.
Exiled Cambodian opposition party founder Sam Rainsy speaks during an interview at a hotel in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia November 10, 2019. Credit: Reuters
The ‘t’ word
Recent troubles began when Rainsy said on RFA’s Oct. 25 evening show that the king’s approval of Hun Sen’s rule — and particularly the decisions in 2005 and 2019 to cede territory claimed by some Cambodians to neighboring Vietnam — made him an accomplice of “treason.”
“What Hun Sen uses as a ruse is to force the king to support his treachery. If the king gives in to Hun Sen’s intimidation and supports Hun Sen’s betrayal, the king must be responsible,” he said. “If it were me, I would have resigned because I can’t be intimidated by Hun Sen.”
Rainsy, who fled Cambodia to his home in Paris in 2015 after the government reinstated a 2011 defamation conviction against him, said on RFA that Sihamoni’s faintheartedness will long be remembered.
“It is dangerous to our nation that you have proved to be the hallmark of the traitor,” Rainsy said. “It means that you have contributed to the treason for which you must be responsible before the Khmer nation and history.”
In response, Hun Sen called on Cambodians to “stand against this traitor and any party that dares associate with this traitor,” alluding to the Candlelight Party once called the Sam Rainsy Party. The prime minister has since urged members of the party to denounce their former leader or risk having their party banned from politics.
“We must do this to defend the monarchy,” he said.
Prince Sisowath Thomico [right]a member of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, addresses supporters during a demonstration at Freedom Park in Phnom Penh April 24, 2013. Photo credit: AFP
Much of the 1,270-kilometer Cambodia-Vietnam border has been poorly demarcated since colonial times when both countries were part of French Indochina. Efforts to strictly define the borders are heavily politicized and have been complicated by the belief of some Cambodians that Vietnam wants to take over their country.
Hun Sen’s personal history — as a fluent Vietnamese-speaking former communist — has raised concerns about the borders. In 2005, disputed treaties that Hun Sen’s government signed in the 1980s – during Cambodia’s military occupation by the Khmer Rouge – were recodified by a “supplementary border treaty” to cede disputed territories to Hanoi.
In his first year as king, Sihamoni had initially objected to the signing of the bill, citing his father’s opposition. But he gave in when Hun Sen threatened to found a republic.
Another treaty was then signed in 2019, further solidifying the earlier treaties, with Cambodia’s opposition again criticizing the law for legitimizing treaties signed during the Vietnamese occupation.
The king as a pawn
Lao Mong Hay, a political analyst who previously served as an advisor to Kem Sokha, a co-founder of Rainsy of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, which was dissolved in 2017, said the dustiness shows how political figures tend to try to King to further their own interests.
“It seems like such respect is just lip service when you say you respect the king or follow the king’s ideas,” Mong Hay said.
There is little point in suddenly embroiling the king in a political struggle if both sides refuse to “collaborate” with him, Mong Hay said.
That alone should protect the king from criticism from politicians who should focus on one another and keep the king above politics, said Prince Sisowath Thomico, a nephew and adopted son of Sihanouk and a former member of the outlawed Cambodia National Rescue Party.
“Frankly, there is extremism on both sides. Both by Prime Minister Hun Sen, who quarreled with Sam Rainsy, and Sam Rainsy, who quarreled with Prime Minister Hun Sen,” Thomico said. “All of this reflects extremism and we will not be able to lead the nation with extremism.”
Son Soubert, a former member of Cambodia’s Constitutional Council, who heads the King’s Advisory Council, said no matter what criticism is leveled against him, Sihamoni is unlikely to get involved in the political struggle.
“He never wanted to take the throne, but because there was no one else, he had to take the throne,” Soubert said. “He knows his role, and he clearly knows his duty: that he may fulfill his duties as the Constitution allows, up until the day he ceases to exist on this planet.”
Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Alex Willemyns.