Abdication card played by Cambodia's ailing king

Threatening to plunge Cambodia into renewed crisis, King Norodom Sihanouk yesterday told his country's leaders he was prepared to abdicate to make way for a younger successor, possibly his son, Prince Norodom Ranariddh.

The prince was ousted as Cambodia's Co-Prime Minister in a bloody coup d'etat in July, a move which the white-haired and infirm monarch has not publicly opposed, but which out of loyalty to his son he has refused to support outright.

The statement was released ahead of a meeting with the coup leader, Hun Sen, at the king's sumptuous palace in Peking. The building was presented to him by the sympathetic Chinese, complete with a heated swimming pool, servants and a reputed nine chefs, after he was deposed by an American- backed regime in the early 1970s.

Since his restoration by the brutal Khmer Rouge in 1975, the king has repeatedly threatened to abdicate. It is one of the few political levers at his disposal in a country where the monarch has little executive power but remains a powerful symbol.

For most Cambodians who have endured the brutal genocide at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, foreign invasions, and a 20-year civil war which has scarred their land and shattered millions of lives, the king has been of the few constants in the fabric of the nation. And while they have starved or struggled in poverty, they have never held against him his luxurious playboy lifestyle, which has taken him through four wives, copious amounts of champagne, and countless fast cars.

Much of the king's tastes can be traced to his extensive contacts with France, the colonial master of Indo-China until 1954, and the country where Sihanouk was both educated and gained his military training. Since his coronation in 1941, aged 19 (he abdicated in the 1950s for five years, to serve as prime minister), he has been one of the most colourful leaders in Asia, garnering both fame and notoriety for his predeliction for gourmet food, wine and entertainment.

Throughout the Fifties and Sixties, Sihanouk's most serious concern was to keep Cambodia out of the escalating war in neighbouring Vietnam, and it was his commitment to neutrality that earned the enmity of the Americans and caused them to back his removal by the right-wing forces of Lon Nol.

Before his overthrow in 1970, he would entertain guests at banquets and moonlit performances of the Royal Ballet, at which he would delight in pointing out the beauty of a particular dancer.

The following day, he would spend hours in the courtyards of his Cambodian royal palace, listening to the complaints of peasants about the high cost of rice.

Worsening health in recent years has led to long absences from Cambodia, and has reduced his once considerable political clout, which helped bring the warring Cambodian factions to an uneasy peace in 1991.

The king, at 74, now little more than a figurehead, holds a weak hand in the face of Hun Sen. He knows that his abdication would probably achieve little, as the power to choose a new monarch rests essentially with Hun Sen himself.

"Prince Ranariddh probably wouldn't even get a look in," said one diplomat in the capital, Phnom Penh. "There are plenty of other easily manipulated little princelings to choose from."

But there is one possibility which King Sihanouk must be acutely aware of. If Hun Sen is unable to secure the political blessing of the King, he might decide to alter the constitution and declare Cambodia a republic.

It may be too early to relegate such a wily survivor as the King to oblivion just yet. In spite of his illness, the monarch has hinted that he intends to return home in order to conduct Buddhist rituals in the ancient temple ruins of Angkor Wat and meet his subjects.

A high-profile return to Cambodia could well ignite popular royalist sentiment, stymie any attempts by Hun Sen to abolish the monarchy and dash the aspirations of the coup-leader to assume the office of president.

In the run up to general elections which are expected to take place next May, Hun Sen's main opponents for government will be Funcinpec, the royalist political party led by Prince Ranariddh.

If the elections are free and fair, though they may not be, a royal visit could swing public opinion further away from Hun Sen's Cambodian Peoples' Party and bring about a humiliating election defeat.