Proleung Khmer

Saturday, February 12, 2005

The Quiet King

The first difference one notices on entering the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh for an audience with King Norodom Sihamoni, the shy diplomat who is the new monarch of Cambodia, is the absence of granite-faced North Korean bodyguards who for years protected his recently retired father, Norodom Sihanouk.

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  • The Standard
    Hong Kong
    Weekend: February 12-13, 2005
    The Quiet King
    James Pringle


    The first difference one notices on entering the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh for an audience with King Norodom Sihamoni, the shy diplomat who is the new monarch of Cambodia, is the absence of granite-faced North Korean bodyguards who for years protected his recently retired father, Norodom Sihanouk.

    For long enough, one could expect a hard thump from these North Koreans while attempting to ask a question of Sihanouk at the airport, or on one of his trips to greet country folk.

    They regarded journalists as a barely tolerable nuisance and if they ever saw us enter the royal palace for an interview, or to be received by the monarch, they looked slightly nonplussed, there being no record of correspondents having any kind of real access to the Great Leader Kim Il Sung or the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il, one of whose titles is ``Great Teacherof Journalists.''

    Ultimately, one was granted a strangled smile and a bone-crushing handshake by these automatons.

    Smaller and not as tough-looking Cambodian security men now scrutinize visitors inside the gates of the fairy tale palace - a fitting place for the Khmer god-king to reside, though it was built by French colonialists in the early years of the 20th century. It seems the new king has initiated
    change and is showing a more nationalist edge.

    It transpires that the new guards have been trained by the North Koreans. Indeed, some of them appear when Sihamoni visits the countryside and they are still responsible for protecting Sihanouk, the King Father. The use of them began as a friendly gesture to Sihanouk from North Korea's late Kim Senior.

    After the missive from Phnom Penh - ``The Ministry of the Royal Palace presents its compliments. His Majesty Preah Bat Samdech Preah Boromneath Norodom Sihamoni, King of Cambodia, will grant an audience ...'' - arrived, I jumped on a plane in Bangkok.

    I soon became a little nervous. A royal protocol official called me just after my arrival in the Cambodian capital to tell me that if I were bringing His Majesty a gift, it should be presented in advance at a side gate of the palace.

    Oh, God, I hadn't thought of a present, and I say so. ``Oh, that's quite all right,'' the aide replied. Later, he called twice more to ask whether I would present a gift. By the time of the audience - there being nothing much to buy in Phnom Penh except counterfeit DVDs - I am feeling miserable and mean.

    I needn't have worried. The new king, wearing a light blue suit, greets us just inside the door of the royal reception room. His portraits, as they appear now alongside those of the King Father and Sihamoni's mother, Queen Monineath, make him seem more austere than his parents, but his smile is friendly and engaging.

    A retainer pours champagne and the chief of protocol, Madam Khek Sisoda, sits sedately opposite.

    There are chocolate bonbons and canapes at side tables, and fresh flowers, but no overbred lap-dog - as was always sprawled as Sihanouk's feet - regarding visitors with irritation.

    What is said at a private audience is not for publication and Hun Sen, Cambodia's hardline prime minister, is not keen on hearing about the monarch granting formal press interviews. But, since his coronation last October, I had learned quite a bit of the king's thinking from others, both in Phnom Penh and in Paris, where the new king had been ambassador to Unesco.

    I first met the 51-year-old Sihamoni in the 1980s in Pyongyang when invited there for an interview with Sihanouk. He was in exile following the fall of the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese invasion and capture of Phnom Penh in January 1979.

    Then, I had lunched en famille with the king, queen and their son at the splendid palace that the Great Leader had made available to Sihanouk outside the North Korean capital.

    ``The reality is, I don't feel in the least like a king, far less a god-king,'' Sihamoni told those close to him when they asked his thoughts on his recent accession. ``I feel just like an ordinary human being, at most a fonctionaire, a civil servant, whose duty is to serve all the people. Inside, I haven't changed. I'm still me.''

    He confessed to friends that the absence of the North Korean bodyguards was not due to more nationalist feelings on his part but was his father's idea. Sihamoni is the only surviving royal son of Sihanouk and Monineath – the rest, including his half-brother Prince Norodom Ranariddh, are the offspring of the father's other wives - and openly admits the debt he owes his parents.

    The new monarch has said he has three priorities for the war-battered country and its 12 million people traumatized by American saturation bombing, Khmer Rouge savagery and then Vietnamese occupation over a 30- year period.

    These are the provision of a good education to all Cambodians and adequate health care for everyone in a country where facilities remain basic.

    The third aim is to restore Phnom Penh's King Suramarit national theater, named after Sihamoni's grandfather. It was built in the 1960s by his father and designed by the leading Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann, who still lives in the capital.

    The building became semi-derelict under the Khmer Rouge, then was destroyed by fire while under reconstruction in the 90s.

    One of the saddest sights in Phnom Penh is to see the daily gathering in the ruins, to exchange memories, of some of the 325 actors, actresses, scene-painters, musicians and stagehands whose work was played out here.

    The new monarch seems ideally suited to revive cultural life in Cambodia. He is an accomplished ballet dancer and choreographer with 11 years' education in the former Czechoslovakia. He has said his ambition is to stage not just classics, such as the Hindu epic The Ramayana, but operas, concerts and modern dance. He remembers, especially, seeing Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats on Broadway while in New York with his parents.

    He thinks such a national theater - it could cost up to US$30 million (HK$234 million) - will bring fresh life and ideas to young Cambodian minds and spur a cultural renaissance.

    Sihamoni has confessed to friends that, while reconciled to being king, he misses his private life in Paris where he lived in a modest flat in the 15th arrondissement. Until recently he enjoyed strolling Parisian avenues, chatting to locals, going to the cinema and theater and spending hours in bookstores. The last book he read was Philip Roth's The Human Stain about an American college professor facing a crisis of identity. This is something, it would appear, that Sihamoni can understand.

    The new Cambodian monarch likes classical music, particularly Smetana and Dvorak, as these remind him of his happy youth in Prague, where his exiled father sent him to be educated while Czechoslovakia was still a communist country. At the same time, the bachelor king also appreciates country and western music.

    These days, far removed from the street life of Paris, Sihamoni starts every day surfing news channels on television with his father, one of the world's great elder statesmen and the only survivor of the Bandung generation of non-aligned leaders. Sihanouk gives Sihamoni a constant seminar on world affairs.

    Sihamoni is not exactly innocent of politics, as he and his parents were held prisoners of the Khmer Rouge in the Royal Palace in the late 70s. Monineath has described how she feared for the life of her husband when the Khmer Rouge took him to meet the odious Brother Number One, Pol Pot. The family became royal farmers, growing vegetables in the palace grounds.

    Sihanouk, now 82 and still active, witty and bubbling with energy, was a playboy in his youth, as he has unabashedly admitted. He was to father 14 sons and daughters from six marriages, some mercilessly killed by the Khmer Rouge.

    Unmarried and without any ``minor'' wives, Sihamoni is childless. The King Father has tactfully said that Sihamoni ``regards women as his sisters.''

    Last year, Sihanouk wrote on his website in support of same-sex marriage in Cambodia, ``I am not gay, but I respect the rights of gays and lesbians. It's not their fault if God makes them born like that.''

    The monarch in Cambodia is decided under the constitution by a nine-person royal council, so it does not matter from the point of view of succession that Sihamoni has no offspring.

    While Cambodians regret their new king has no children, they respect his deeply held Buddhist beliefs. Khmers, having been through the Killing Fields, are not an intolerant people.

    They accept Sihamoni as he is and there seems little doubt among most observers that the quiet monarch will be a popular king, though he does not yet have the natural charisma of his father and, in truth, may never have. Sihanouk will remain the power behind the throne for a while yet.

    If Sihamoni is not quite a chip off the old block, he will undoubtedly grow into the job, and will take very seriously the monarchy's role as the last recourse of poor people.

    ``My father is unique,'' he says, and few could contradict that, though not everyone is an admirer of the King Father.

    Sihamoni is not, according to all sources, tainted with corruption and he is not involved with politics. Neither has he lived long enough in the country to make enemies. He won't exactly be living a life of luxury, either - the Royal Palace is comfortable without being sumptuous.

    Where the monarchy is extremely important in Cambodia, as in Thailand, is that it represents a force that can speak for the people to the politicians. In Cambodia, it is a counterpoint to the tough political class that has always ruled their lives.

    At the end of the hour-long audience, a retainer hands the king small, carved, silver boxes as gifts for the guests. This is a vexed point for correspondents, as they are not supposed to accept presents or ``freebies.''

    But to reject a token gift from a king seems unduly churlish. I only regret I have no similar token of my own.

    But I know what I will give next time if ever invited for a royal audience again by Cambodia's new monarch: The latest novel by Philip Roth and the number one country and western offering on the Nashville hit parade.[End]

    By Blogger Proleung, at 11:42 AM  

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