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Cambodia's Sihanouk May Play Last Hand

King Norodom Sihanouk shocked Cambodians when he announced his abdication after six decades. But far from abandoning his 13 million subjects, the master of political maneuvering may be playing one last hand to ensure the survival of the monarchy.
/ Source: The Associated Press

King Norodom Sihanouk shocked Cambodians when he announced his abdication after six decades. But far from abandoning his 13 million subjects, the master of political maneuvering may be playing one last hand to ensure the survival of the monarchy.

Sihanouk, who turns 82 at the end of this month, said last week he was stepping down due to fragile health and asked the country's leaders to begin a search for a new king among his royal family _ an announcement that bewildered Cambodians.

On Sunday, Sihanouk said his son Prince Norodom Sihamoni is ready to accept the throne if selected by the Throne Council. The council must meet by Thursday to chose a new ruler.

The 51-year-old Sihamoni, a former ballet instructor, was "a neutral and impartial person who is not engaged in politics," Sihanouk said. He said Sihamoni did not want to be king but would take the job on.

The quick turn of events came while Cambodians were still digesting the abdication announcement.

"I think this time it's real because he had been talking about abdicating for some time already," said Bee Ieng, a 33-year-old driver of a motorbike taxi waiting for customers near the Royal Palace.

So Nan, a 40-year-old government employee, feared political instability because Sihanouk "has always been the father of the nation and national reconciliation."

"I'm very worried about what his abdication will do to our country," agreed Taing Say, 70, who pedals a bicycle rickshaw for a living.

Sihanouk has led Cambodia through its darkest days.

Cambodians his age remember how peace and prosperity prevailed under the leadership of Sihanouk until 1970, when he was ousted by Phnom Penh's pro-American elite, who declared a republic and left him in exile.

A vicious civil war followed, ending in a 1975 victory for the communist Khmer Rouge insurgents with whom Sihanouk cast his lot against his usurpers, sparking violence that cost the lives of an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians _ about one quarter of the population.

When a Vietnamese invasion ousted the Khmer Rouge in 1979, Sihanouk was freed from house arrest at his palace and went back into exile. He started a fresh struggle, leading a guerrilla alliance to war against a Hanoi-installed regime. He then led peace talks that bore fruit with U.N.-organized elections in 1993.

Restored as a constitutional monarch after the polls, he has served as the country's conscience as politicians bickered.

Especially frustrating for Sihanouk, says his official biographer Julio Jeldres, has been the failure of the leadership to address poverty, corruption, injustice, or make proper preparations for the king's successor.

But several Cambodia experts and foreign friends believe he is attempting to preserve the monarchy, about which Prime Minister Hun Sen has shown ambivalence. Jeldres says one of Sihanouk's main concerns "has been that after him the monarchy may cease to exist."

"By abdicating he hopes to avoid the confusion and impasse that might occur if he died and there was no clear map as to what might follow," says Bernie Krisher, a longtime friend and publisher of the Cambodia Daily newspaper.

David Chandler, a historian of modern Cambodia, calls Sihanouk's move a ploy against Hun Sen, who, the scholar thinks, "probably would not like anyone on the throne at all."

"No one gains from political uncertainty in Cambodia," Chandler said. "Sihanouk knows this and is playing one more deal of the cards."

Chandler said Sihanouk is also clever enough to back Sihamoni, who has long lived abroad, and would not be threatening. Sihanouk on Sunday vowed to help his son "so that he can fulfill his duty successfully as a king for the nation and the people, like me, his father."