Former dancer takes the Khmer crown, with Hun Sen's approval

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Cambodia moved smoothly into a new royal era yesterday as Prince Norodom Sihamoni ascended to the throne surprisingly abdicated by his father King Norodom Sihanouk.

Cambodia moved smoothly into a new royal era yesterday as Prince Norodom Sihamoni ascended to the throne surprisingly abdicated by his father King Norodom Sihanouk.

Sihamoni, a 51-year-old former ballet dancer, was selected by a special government council which met in the royal palace near the banks of the Tonle Sap river. The apolitical prince won the approval of Prime Minister Hun Sen, the strongman who actually rules the impoverished kingdom, and the coronation is planned for 29 October.

The middle-aged music buff will trade his life of cultured leisure in Paris and Beijing to return to the royal palace in Phnom Penh, where he spent three years under house arrest during the blood-soaked Khmer Rouge regime. Five of his 13 siblings eventually died as the country plunged into chaos and 1.7 million lives were lost during the "killing fields" period.

Born in 1953, the year Cambodia won its independence from France, Sihamoni is the favourite son of Sihanouk and his sixth wife, Queen Monineath. His first name is a romantic combination of theirs.

Unlike his brothers, who are active in Cambodia's royalist Funcinpec party and have waged protracted power struggles with the premier, the bachelor prince has lived abroad most of his life and knows his country through its classical dance rather than its factional politics. He studied fine arts abroad in Prague and Pyongyang, and later danced in some of the leading conservatories in Paris. After serving 11 years as Cambodia's ambassador to Unesco, last year Sihamoni moved to Beijing to nurse his father, who suffers from a stomach ailment, diabetes, and cancer.

Though the royal line stretches back to the 13th-century Angkor empire, the king today is little more than a figurehead, even though traditional Cambodians continue to consider the monarch to be semi-divine.

Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge cadre who has held on to power since the Vietnamese placed him in charge of the government, has had a strained relationship with the mercurial Sihanouk.

Hun Sen had grown increasingly irritated by Sihanouk's habit of posting wry political comments on his widely-read website. It was feared that without a plan of succession, the monarchy might have collapsed after Sihanouk's death.

Sihamoni's royal bearing recalls the posture of his father, who became king at the age of 18, after the colonial French rulers passed over his grandfather. Father and son share a passion for film and music, and can charm a crowd in five languages.

"He's very much an unknown quantity, but he's certainly no fool," said one Western diplomat who encountered Sihamoni when he was at Unesco. "There might be some surprises if people think of him as a soft touch."

Sihanouk once hinted that Sihamoni might spurn the crown but that was before he made an offer that his son could not refuse. Last week Sihanouk went from king to kingmaker.

"My abdication allows me to give our country, our nation and our people a serious opportunity to avoid mortal turmoil the day after my death," Sihanouk wrote. Cambodians, he said "do not deserve another disaster".

One of King Sihamoni's main concerns has been retrieving and restoring stolen Khmer artefacts; his next task will be to restore the lustre to the monarchy.