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

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
England's women celebrate after their 3rd place play-off win against Germany
Women's World CupFara Williams converts penalty to secure victory and bronze medals
News
newsHillary Clinton comments on viral Humans of New York photo of gay teenager
Arts and Entertainment
The gang rape scene in the Royal Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell has caused huge controversy
music
Sport
wimbledonScot will face Ivo Karlovic next
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Spanish Speaking

£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - German Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Japanese Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are fluent in Japanese a...

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer - Immediate Start

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test