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Cambodia's king a 'prisoner' in his palace

As the sun sets and the last tourist departs his vast, fairy-tale palace, the gentle, dignified man is left almost alone with memories of happier times, before he became the reluctant king of Cambodia — and perhaps its last.
Norodom Sihamoni
Cambodia's King Norodom Sihamoni greets well-wishers during an annual royal plowing ceremony in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on May 21.Heng Sinith / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

As the sun sets and the last tourist departs his vast, fairy-tale palace, the gentle, dignified man is left almost alone with memories of happier times, before he became the reluctant king of Cambodia — and perhaps its last.

King Norodom Sihamoni may be heir to a royal line trailing back some 2,000 years, but he always seemed more suited to the arts scene in Europe, where he was a ballet dancer, than the rough and tumble politics of his homeland. Now, close aides and experts say, he has become figuratively, and more, a prisoner in his own palace.

The chief warden: Prime Minister Hun Sen, who rose from a poor rural background to become a brilliant and crafty, some say ruthless, politician.

Hun Sen consolidated power in a 1997 coup as Cambodia slowly emerged from being dragged into the Vietnam War and its own civil war. While the country is nominally democratic, he uses all the machinery of government to lock up critics and ensure his re-election. Human rights groups allege that he and his business friends are enriching themselves, while most of the population remains mired in poverty.

His control extends over the palace. The king is surrounded by the government's watchdogs, overseen by Minister of Royal Affairs Kong Som Ol, an official close to Hun Sen. Sihamoni is closely chaperoned on his few trips outside palace walls, with the media kept away. Although the constitution endows him with considerable powers, these have never been granted.

"I think we can use the words 'puppet king.' His power has been reduced to nothing," says Son Chhay, an opposition member of Parliament and one of the government's few outspoken critics. "The king must please the prime minister as much as possible in order to survive. It is sad to see."

It wasn't always so. Sihamoni's flamboyant and charismatic father, Norodom Sihanouk, bestrode the country like a colossus for decades. Many regarded him as a god-king, and thousands flocked to the plaza fronting the Royal Palace for fireworks and other lavish celebrations on his birthday.

Sihanouk abruptly abdicated in 2004 following confrontations with Hun Sen. Son Chhay and others say Sihamoni accepted the crown under pressure from parents hoping to ensure the survival of the monarchy.

'Sad, lonely, abandoned'
Seven years later, "sad, lonely, abandoned" are words sympathetic Cambodians often use when describing Sihamoni. The 58-year-old monarch spends much of each day signing documents, receiving guests and handling other routine business, then retires mostly to dine alone and read, says Prince Sisowath Thomico, Sihanouk's private secretary and an adviser to his son.

Unlike his father, who had six wives and numerous lovers, Sihamoni is a lifelong bachelor and unlikely to leave an heir.

His birthday passed recently with little notice. Within the palace's crenelated walls, among the graceful pavilions and gilt spires, there was no sign of activity. Outside, knots of people went about their normal evening pastimes at the grassy, riverfront square, feeding pigeons, lounging on reed mats and snacking on lotus seeds and noodles.

"The king is a good, gentle man, a symbol of Cambodia. But he has one problem: no power. He only stays inside the palace. On television the leaders bow down before him but behind his back there is no respect," said Sin Chhay, a young civil servant at the plaza. "You could say that Hun Sen is the real king of Cambodia."

Information Minister Khieu Kanharith insists the king is involved in social and religious affairs and judicial reviews, receives a monthly report from Hun Sen on government activities and makes recommendations on them.

"The current King Sihamoni has played an important role in restoring the ... monarchy. As a king and symbol of national unity he maintains strict neutrality and doesn't become involved in any political activities," he said. "To say that he's a prisoner in the palace would be inappropriate."

Sihamoni, a former ballet dancer and cultural ambassador, spent 25 years in Czechoslovakia and France. That European past, Western diplomats say, is his great escape.

He returns regularly to what is now the Czech Republic, calling it "my second homeland," and has said his time in Prague "belongs to the happiest in my life." Fluent in the language — which reportedly vexes his keepers trying to eavesdrop on conversations with Czech visitors — he avidly reads Czech theater reviews and savors DVDs of ballets and operas.

He keeps in close touch with the family that cared for him after he arrived in the Czech capital at age 9. Thirteen years later, he graduated from Prague's Academy of Musical Art.

Shortly after, he joined his parents, who were being kept under virtual house arrest within the palace by the brutal Khmer Rouge government, which came to power after defeating a U.S.-backed government in 1975. Sihamoni worked in the palace gardens and cleaned out the throne hall.

An estimated 1.7 million people died during the Khmer Rouge reign of terror, including more than a dozen of Sihanouk's children and relatives.

Three decades later, the country is still coming to terms with that period. A U.N.-assisted tribunal is trying a handful of the surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge, but the trials have been plagued by long delays and corruption allegations.

Sihamoni has had only ceremonial involvement with the tribunal. Any deeper association would irritate both Hun Sen and Sihanouk, who for a time allied himself with the Khmer Rouge but has also supported the trials.

After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, Sihanouk went to Paris, from where he backed resistance against a Vietnamese-installed government that replaced it.

Sihamoni also went to the French capital and stayed on even after his father was restored as king in 1993. He taught, performed and choreographed classical Cambodian dance as well as Western ballet and served as ambassador to the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

He gave up this much-cherished life to become king in 2004.

The king's high privy councilor, Son Soubert, who is aligned with one of the two small opposition parties with parliamentary seats, says the government has blocked passage of two constitutional provisions: the formation of a potentially powerful Supreme Council of National Defense headed by the king, and an annual National Congress that would continue the tradition of citizens appealing directly to the monarch.

Commenting on the congress, the information minister said that in today's Cambodia such a meeting would be a mess and powerless to override any decisions made by an elected National Assembly.

Some question just how much power Sihamoni wants to wield or is capable of exercising.

"If he were to try to take a political role I have no doubt Hun Sen would act to diminish him and the monarchy generally almost immediately. Which is why he is effectively a prisoner in the palace," says Milton Osborne, an Australian historian and author of a Sihanouk biography. "He could very well be the last king of Cambodia."

Prince Sisowath Thomico, the adviser, insists there is no animosity between king and prime minister and says Cambodia's monarchy has merely entered a new stage, shedding its political role.

'A guardian of the past'
"The king now serves as a guardian of the past, of tradition, the moral character of Cambodia and points the way ahead for future generations," he says. "We leave the present to the government."

By most accounts, Sihamoni is still largely respected, especially in the countryside. He is probably considered less relevant in urban areas, especially among an extremely young population — the median age is about 23 — that was not around during Sihanouk's heyday, before violence engulfed the country.

Prince Norodom Ranarridh, who heads a pro-monarchy party, believes Cambodians are "still royalists at heart" and holds a nuanced view of his half brother.

The king doesn't exercise his prerogatives under the constitution to avoid jeopardizing an institution he regards as more important than himself, Ranarridh said. At the same time, Sihamoni's personality is unassertive, so he falls comfortably into the role of doing the minimum.

"So both the king and prime minister are very happy with the situation. It is some kind of a gentlemen's agreement," the prince says, laughing.

But he adds: "I don't think my brother is very happy. He would like to be somewhere else."