Cambodia’s king is dead, long live the PM
PHNOM PENH (AFP) – He towered over his kingdom through tumultuous decades. Yet when Cambodia’s “king father” Norodom Sihanouk finally ceded power, experts say, it was not to his heir but to strongman premier Hun Sen.
Since his death in October in Beijing, Cambodia has paid homage to the man who was king, prime minister, head of state, then king once more, before stepping down in favour of his son Sihamoni in 2004.
An elaborate week-long funeral, which ends on Thursday, has drawn throngs of mourners to Phnom Penh’s streets to bid farewell to the beloved royal, whose embalmed body had been lying in state for three months.
The shrewd political operator remained a dominant figure for more than half a century marked by independence from France, civil war, the murderous Khmer Rouge regime, his own exile and finally peace.
But he leaves behind a politically weak institution.
When Sihanouk returned to the throne in 1993, analysts say it was only after striking a deal with prime minister and one-time Khmer Rouge cadre Hun Sen that allowed the premier to exercise full political power.
“This rather weird couple was a political set up,” said Hugues Tertrais, a history professor at the Pantheon-Sorbonne University in Paris.
“As Norodom Sihanouk abdicated relatively early in favour of Sihamoni, the formula has remained the same, even though Sihamoni does not have his father’s charisma.”
The decision to pass the crown to Sihamoni, now 59, rather than to his oldest and more politically ambitious son Ranariddh was seen by some diplomats as an attempt to ensure the survival of the monarchy, albeit one with little power.
Widely seen as disconnected from his country’s politics, Sihamoni – a keen amateur dancer who was Cambodia’s Ambassador to UNESCO in Paris at the time – made what is widely described as a reluctant return to Phnom Penh.
Sihanouk’s choice of heir was supported by Hun Sen, “perhaps because Sihamoni is apolitical and believed to be relatively pliable,” according to a US diplomatic memo dated October 2004 published by WikiLeaks.
“Since reassuming the throne in 1993, Sihanouk has seen his power progressively eroded by powerful politicians, especially Hun Sen, and a more open political system,” it added.
Sihamoni has since firmly stuck to his role as a symbolic head of state, respecting the deal struck between his father and Hun Sen, an authoritarian leader who has vowed to stay in office until he is 90, some three decades from now.