While Cambodia waits for King Sihamoni to emerge from the shadow of his father, the Kingdom’s monarchy is withering
By Dr Markus Karbaum
King Norodom Sihamoni stands alone. The death of his father and protector, the late King Norodom Sihanouk – the leading star of Cambodia’s 20th century – in October last year, has left him exposed.
Since assuming the throne eight years ago, the former ballet dancer appears to have had difficulties acclimatising to his role. He appears introverted, emotional and gentle – soft characteristics that may not fit the traditional notion of a head of state. However, it was because of these personality traits that he was chosen to become king in October 2004. It was a decision made by the Throne Council – which elects each monarch – and Prime Minister Hun Sen controls which royal is eligible. Since coming to power, Hun Sen – the longest serving current leader in Southeast Asia – has successfully reduced the monarchy to a ceremonial playground for the regal family and its followers. As such, its impact on the state is invisible at worst, and delible at best. Therefore, perhaps it is unfair to judge Sihamoni by his actions alone.
The political royal movement that once enjoyed significant support has faltered to a standstill, as strongman Hun Sen has tightened his grip on power, disappointing any hopes of regime change through the ballot box. As such, Cambodians have had to shift their perceptions of traditional hierarchy: having ensured the king reigns and does not rule, the government has enjoyed a power shift that endows Hun Sen with the unofficial status of ‘real king’. Even hugely charismatic and widely revered Sihanouk was not able to impede this development. He was, however, able to preserve his role as a moral compass, a father of the nation and – with little risk – a man who could give Hun Sen the cold shoulder from time to time.
With a completely different disposition and operating in a different political context, his son does not enjoy such a standing. Some observers describe him as ‘sad, lonely, abandoned’ – a prisoner in his own palace, one from which he hasn’t tried to escape. He appears not to have searched for a maxim to define his rule, even if only a symbolic and vastly apolitical one. Few would deny the advantage of having a rallying adage, but the king is too hesitant and undecided. Under these circumstances – and even discounting Hun Sen’s meddling – the monarchy is withering. It is making itself dispensable. This alone is not Sihamoni’s responsibility: there are numerous royalists who depend on Hun Sen’s appanage and in return deliver obedience and little else.
It takes very little to imagine that the Cambodian monarchy will be buried shortly after Sihanouk’s mortal remains are encased. The only solace we can take from this event is that if this monarchy disappears, very few Cambodians will suffer a great loss.
Dr Markus Karbaum is Southeast Asia Studies consultant and lecturer at the Free University Berlin.