Saturday, July 16, 2005

Editorial: HM King Sihamoni's dignified settling in

By Verghese Mathews

Former King Norodom Sihanouk and Queen Mother Monineath Sihanouk returned to Phnom Penh on Thursday June 23 accompanied by their son King Norodom Sihamoni, who flew to Beijing a few days earlier to travel home with them. The King's open devotion and show of respect for his parents and their obvious love for him on this and other occasions have touched many hearts.

Sihanouk, who left for medical treatment in January after having passed on the crown to Sihamoni in October 2004, had been away for almost six months and much has happened in the interim in the country, including in the public perception of the new King.

Sihamoni, the reluctant monarch, who was little known on assuming the throne a few months back, has settled in with charm and dignity and endeared himself very quickly to his people. He has surprised most observers and even some Cambodians themselves, in the manner and the sincerity of his outreach and his concern, like that of his father before him, for the poor and the marginalised in his country - and there are many of them.

From the onset it was very clear that Sihamoni was extremely keen to know his people and that he wanted them to know him. He has more than succeeded on both counts and the increasing public demonstrations of affection for him are indicators of this.

In a post-conflict third world society that is Cambodia, bedevilled as it is with unceasing political infighting, Sihamoni is fast becoming a rallying point for national unity and national reconciliation.

One of his earliest comments on assuming the throne put politicians at ease with his unsolicited undertaking not to directly involve himself in the political arena. He has kept his word. He has also made good his promise to go to his people by visiting many of the provinces.

Early last month, on a visit to the four northwestern provinces, he stopped in Pailin, the former stronghold of the dreaded Khmer Rouge, who had imprisoned him and his parents in the Palace at Phnom Penh and who were responsible for the deaths of several of his immediate relatives. There was no rancour on either side as thousands of former Khmer Rouge soldiers, now mostly farmers, came out to greet the new King. He embraced them with his by-now-much-photographed smile and outstretched hands.

All this achieved in less than eight months. Small wonder that Sihanouk, on the recent occasion of his favourite son's 53rd birthday, proudly congratulated Sihamoni for "serving as a bridge uniting the Cambodian population to understand one another and to strengthen their cooperation."

Despite these expressions from the public, there are still a few skeptics who argue that the King has not been really tested and that without Sihanouk around, the new King would be weakened and would falter. There were more who thought so initially.

However, those who have now come to know the new King confide that this concern is misplaced.

The King's first nine months has generated the popular belief that with this support of the people he will grow in his role as a unifying and a rallying force for Cambodia, and that should anything happen to Sihanouk there would be enough trusted advisors and experts at Sihamoni's service, if need be.

While Sihanouk should undoubtedly be credited for the smooth succession process and for the expert tutelage of his son, it was the new King's own efforts that gained him the affection and respect of the Cambodian people.

Moreover, Sihamoni has proven that his father's preference for him to succeed the throne was well-placed.

A related observation is that Sihanouk has in his inimitable way ensured that the monarchy did not end with him, and that in Sihamoni the Cambodian people have a worthy successor. So long as the King remains above politics and continues to relate to his people, he will be a natural rallying point and a unifying factor.

In this context, the royal father and son have disproved a favorite theory of the late King Farouk of Egypt. There is the old story of how Farouk, after he was forced to abdicate his throne in July 1952, boldly predicted that by the end of that century there would be only five Kings left in the world - the King of Hearts, the King of Diamonds, the King of Clubs, the King of Spades and the King of England.

If Farouk were still around, he should not be surprised that King Sihamoni of Cambodia reigns with dignity.

The writer, Singapore's former Ambassador to Cambodia, is presently a Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) in Singapore.

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