Cambodia enters new era as former ballet dancer becomes king

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Enormous wooden temple drums sounded to herald a new royal era in Cambodia yesterday as King Norodom Sihamoni addressed the nation for the first time after an elaborate coronation ceremony at the Khemarin Palace in Phnom Penh. What the new monarch had to say was perhaps less important to ordinary Cambodians than watching the classical Khmer pageantry.

Enormous wooden temple drums sounded to herald a new royal era in Cambodia yesterday as King Norodom Sihamoni addressed the nation for the first time after an elaborate coronation ceremony at the Khemarin Palace in Phnom Penh. What the new monarch had to say was perhaps less important to ordinary Cambodians than watching the classical Khmer pageantry.

The succession of the 51-year-old former ballet dancer, a political novice who lived in Paris for half his life, is being celebrated with a three-day national festival that ends today. The throne room is familiar to the new king; he was held here, and had to mop it, during the years of the killing fields under the Khmer Rouge. His father, Norodom Sihanouk, is expected to remain a presence behind the throne to advise on the complex role of heading a constitutional monarchy only now coming to terms with the legacy of genocide. The government declared that the ailing former king, who abdicated three weeks ago, would henceforth be known as The Great Heroic King Sihanouk.

The mercurial monarch, who turns 82 tomorrow, risked a constitutional crisis to step down. Legislation had to be rushed through to approve his sudden decision, announced on his personal website while he had medical treatment in Beijing.

A throne council unanimously approved the choice of King Sihamoni a fortnight ago. Because Cambodia is among Asia's most impoverished countries, the new king insisted that money not be squandered on an ostentatious coronation. But the procession was hardly austere. At dawn, King Sihamoni walked through the palace grounds, flanked by Buddhist monks in saffron robes and North Korean bodyguards. Eight bearers carried him into the throne room on a golden litter. Members of the National Assembly gathered, in formal dress, for the swearing-in.

Beneath a golden pagoda, Prince Sihamoni ascended the throne and prayed to the rising sun. Earlier, his father had anointed his son's shaven head with spring water from mountains above the 800-year-old temples of Angkor Wat, in a symbolic cleansing to bless his reign. Queen Monineath gave the new monarch a maternal kiss.

The expatriate king's lack of experience in the country's fractious politics is viewed as an advantage.

"According to the constitution, the king must be politically neutral. He is the father of the nation, and not involved in politics," said Prince Norodom Ranariddh, Sihamoni's elder half-brother and head of the royalist party. Sihanouk, who had pardoned the Khmer Rouge's Brother Number Two, Nuon Chea, as a gesture of national reconciliation in 1996, will leave it to his son, King Sihamoni, to formally approve genocide trials a quarter century after the Killing Fields exterminated a generation of Cambodians.

Comments