Monday, 19 November 2012

Thousands Mourn Former King Sihanouk in Cambodian Capital

AppId is over the quota
AppId is over the quota
The body of King Sihanouk, who died on Monday in China, arrived from Beijing on Wednesday aboard an Air China jumbo jet and was driven through the streets of Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, under a scorching tropical sun.

“He was the father, and we are the children,” said Pich Ravy, a vegetable seller who traveled to the Royal Palace, where King Sihanouk’s body will lie in state for the next three months. “He was one of Cambodia’s greatest kings.”

King Sihanouk’s death at 89, after six decades of deep involvement in Cambodia’s often devastating post-independence politics — marked by long years of war and the bloody rule of the Khmer Rouge — signaled the end of an era for Cambodia. But what the new era, and the monarchy, will look like is a subject of heated debate. Amid the official praise and remembrances Wednesday, Cambodians discussed competing visions for the role of future kings.

To some, King Sihanouk’s death underscored the end of an activist monarchy where the lines between king and politician were blurred, and where a monarch could use the prestige of the throne to exert influence and power, as King Sihanouk, who ceded the throne to his son in 2004, often did.

To others, his death highlighted a vacuum of moral authority and the highly concentrated and lopsided power of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has presided over the Cambodian government for the past 33 years, making him one of the longest-serving leaders in the world.

“This is a new era for Hun Sen,” said Lao Moung Hay, a former civil servant and professor of law and economics. “There is no force to restrain him anymore — there are risks for the country.”

Prince Sisowath Thomico, King Sihanouk’s longtime private secretary and nephew, said that some Cambodians were worried and afraid after Mr. Sihanouk’s death.

“He had such charisma,” he said in an interview in the Royal Palace. “And now there will be a kind of hiatus. The people of Cambodia will have to wait for the next person who will have that same moral authority.”

King Sihanouk, who was crowned in 1941, had gradually withdrawn from public life in recent years. In his long, colorful and complex rule as king and politician, he was praised by historians for his role in obtaining independence from France and criticized for providing legitimacy to the Khmer Rouge and assisting their rise to power. Some 1.7 million people are estimated to have died under the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s.

But among mourners in Phnom Penh on Wednesday, King Sihanouk was remembered mostly as someone concerned with the plight of the poor and powerless.

“The king did everything for the people,” said Som Srey Pao, a 49-year-old mother who traveled to the Royal Palace with her three children on Wednesday. “He sacrificed himself for the people.”

The king’s elaborate coffin, draped in a blue royal flag and festooned with flowers, was placed on a gilded carriage shaped to represent a mythical birdlike creature. Mourners clutched incense sticks and lotus flowers. They remained quiet and reverential, many of them kneeling, as the carriage wheeled past.

Trailing it was the black Mercedes of the current king, Norodom Sihamoni, who reluctantly took the throne when his father abdicated in 2004. King Sihamoni, 59, is a former ballet instructor who remains under the long shadow of his father. He is unmarried and seen as unlikely to produce an heir. Although kings can be chosen from among hundreds of descendants of prior kings, the lack of an obvious successor to King Sihamoni has raised anxiety among some royalists.

Son Soubert, a member of the privy council to the current king, spoke of a “vacuum” following King Sihanouk’s death. He described the current king as much more reserved on many issues than his father.

“Our present king is so neutral that he doesn’t get involved,” Mr. Son Soubert said. “He sticks to his role within the Constitution.”

To allies of Mr. Hun Sen, the prime minister, that is exactly the way it should be.

Phay Siphan, secretary of state in the Council of Ministers, which functions as a cabinet, describes a new era for the monarchy in Cambodia, enshrined in the country’s 1993 Constitution.

“The king should be away from political activity,” Mr. Phay Siphan said in an interview. “The king does not rule the people — the king is respected by the people,” he said.

Mr. Phay Siphan called King Sihanouk a “well-respected politician” and suggested he be described as the “godfather of Cambodia.” But he said the nation had moved on.

“The king played two roles, one as a king and one as a politician,” he said. “This was a mixed message for the nation.”

Critics of Mr. Hun Sen’s government see an effort to monopolize the entire political arena and the monarchy.

Unlike the royals in Thailand or Britain, the Cambodian royal family is not wealthy and does not have vast landholdings. Kings are largely reliant on the state budget for their activities, giving the government potential leverage over the monarchy.

Depending on the timing of succession, Mr. Hun Sen and his allies may also have considerable say about who becomes the next king. The Constitution puts that power in the hands of a nine-member Throne Council that includes the prime minister and top officials from the National Assembly and Senate, both of which are currently controlled by Mr. Hun Sen’s party.

Poypiti Amatatham contributed reporting.

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