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Cambodia crowns new king

Former ballet dancer Norodom Sihamoni was formally crowned as Cambodia's new king Friday in a lavish ceremony at the Royal Palace.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Former ballet dancer Norodom Sihamoni was formally crowned as Cambodia's new king Friday in a lavish ceremony at the Royal Palace.

Sihamoni was brought to the palace on an ornate golden litter carried by eight bearers.

He was accompanied by royal guards and musicians playing ceremonial music, while other royal officials carried a golden crown, robe and sword that were used in the ceremony.

"I swear to abide by the constitution and laws of the kingdom and am committed to serve the interests of the state and the people," Sihamoni said as he stood before the throne.

He repeated the oath three times, and bowed after finishing the sentence each time.

First new monarch in half a century
The new monarch replaces his revered father Norodom Sihanouk, who abdicated three weeks ago after more than six decades on Cambodia's center stage.

Sihamoni, a former professional dancer, cultural ambassador and political novice, is the country's first new monarch in half a century.

The procession -- entirely within the palace grounds -- went from the golden-hued Khemarin Palace, where the king resides, to the throne hall, where the monarch conducts official affairs.

More than 200 dignitaries attended the functions, including Prime Minister Hun Sen and National Assembly President Prince Norodom Ranariddh, Sihamoni's half brother.

Some 52 Buddhist monks -- one for each year of the king's life according to the traditional Cambodian zodiac -- chanted blessings. By the Western calendar, he is 51.

Temples across the country were expected to fill with people offering prayers for the new king.

Earlier Friday, Sihamoni paid respect to past kings and divine spirits guarding the throne to ask for their blessings.

Ritual bathing ceremony
In a ritual bathing ceremony, monks and Sihamoni's parents -- Sihanouk and former Queen Monineath -- poured water from the Kulen Mountains on the new king to wash away his impurities, and increase his prestige and power.

Stones from the Kulen Mountains, just north of Siem Reap, were used to build the ancient temples of Angkor, Cambodia's best-known landmark. The area's water is considered especially pure.

During the ceremony, Monineath gently patted the back of her son's head and gave him a kiss. His half brother, Ranariddh, held his hand as he walked him to the royal bath.

Sihanouk wished his son -- who wore loosely fitting light golden-colored ceremonial garments -- "great success and prestige" in his role as monarch.

"May also peace, happiness and prosperity prevail for the Cambodian nation and people under King Norodom Sihamoni," he said.

The streets of Phnom Penh -- some dotted with portraits of the youthful-looking king -- were quiet Friday, with most workers having the day off. Police barred traffic in front of the Royal Palace, where a huge portrait of Sihamoni has replaced one of his mother and father.

Cultural significance
Cambodia's king is seldom involved in day-to-day politics, but the position carries huge cultural significance for the Cambodian, or Khmer, people, and the king has some influence on national affairs.

Sihamoni has no political experience and is better known as a ballet dancer and an envoy to the United Nations cultural agency.

He has spent most of the past two decades living outside his homeland, mostly in Paris.

He was selected as new king by a nine-member throne council on Oct. 14, a week after Sihanouk, who turns 82 on Sunday, abdicated, claiming poor health.

Ranariddh said his brother "will carry on the legacy" of Sihanouk, whom most Cambodians consider the father of Cambodia's "independence, territorial integrity and national unity."

Sihanouk wrested independence from the French and led the country through a peaceful, relatively prosperous era in the 1950s and '60s. He then saw his country plunged into bloody conflict between the Khmer Rouge and a U.S.-backed regime in Phnom Penh, before democratic elections in 1993.