Cambodia's King Sihanouk could never be accused of thinking too little of himself. I am the natural ruler of the country, he said when he named himself Prime Minister, too, in 1952. He does not shy away from his image as a deva raja, or god-king. Yet since his coronation in 1941, the mercurial Sihanouk has most often underscored his power by threatening to give it up. He actually entered his period of greatest authority after stepping down from the throne in 1955, when he became samdech upayuvareach, the Prince formerly known as King. Sihanouk is King again, reinstated when he helped broker a new civilian government in 1993. But the prospect of his departure is no longer just a threat: the 77-year-old monarch has been ailing for years, and for the past month has been in Beijing, undergoing medical treatment for colon cancer. Reluctantly, some Cambodians are beginning to realize they may soon have to find a replacement for their god-king.
There is no obvious heir: by law, the royal line does not automatically descend through the eldest son, and Sihanouk cannot name his successor. That uncertainty worries Cambodians almost as much as the prospect of Sihanouk's passing. We are in the very early stages of stability, peace and economic development. It is important that we have predictability, says political analyst Kao Kim Hourn. We cannot afford to leave the royal succession in darkness.
Sihanouk himself was an unexpected choice for King, anointed by the French over his father and uncle largely because Paris imagined the schoolboy would bend more easily to its will. His successor will be picked by a throne council comprising two Buddhist patriarchs and seven leading politicians. The council is reportedly split nearly evenly between supporters of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who hold five seats, and partisans of his arch-rival, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, who claim the remainder. They must choose among dozens of eligible princes from three branches of the royal family. At the moment, the leading candidates include an accused Khmer Rouge collaborator, a convicted (and failed) assassin, a ballet dancer and a Queen who technically isn't even eligible for the throne.
In one plausible scenario, Hun Sen, like the French, would engineer the accession of the most malleable contender. For most of the past two decades the Prime Minister, a former Khmer Rouge cadre, has run Cambodia with a ruthlessness reminiscent of Sihanouk's own more autocratic periods. Hun Sen is unlikely to welcome a potential challenger now, and while the monarchy retains little political clout, it remains symbolically powerful. This has prompted speculation among Phnom Penh's Úlite that Hun Sen favors passing the crown to Prince Norodom Sihamoni, 47, a former ballet dancer who currently serves as a UNESCO ambassador.
But Sihanouk himself proved how hollow the crown could be when he tossed it aside in 1955. The kingship could just as easily serve as a safe, ceremonial parking spot for one of Hun Sen's rivals. Prince Ranariddh, 56, ousted from power by the Prime Minister in 1997 and convicted in absentia of conspiring with the Khmer Rouge, insists he does not want the post. But when he brought his royalist FUNCINPEC party back into a coalition government in 1998, many Cambodians assumed he had struck a deal with Hun Sen to claim the throne one day. (Ranariddh now serves as president of the National Assembly.)
Such an outcome, however, would open the leadership of FUNCINPEC to a man Hun Sen may fear even more: Sihanouk's half-brother, Prince Norodom Sirivudh, 49. A former Foreign Minister, he was a rising star within the party until a rumored falling out with Ranariddh. In 1995, Hun Sen accused Sirivudh of plotting to have him killed; Sihanouk intervened to have his half-brother exiled rather than jailed, and the Prince returned to Cambodia only last year. He is currently an adviser to the King. Analysts say Sirivudh's political skills are far sharper than Ranariddh's, and with FUNCINPEC's backing he could prove a threat to Hun Sen. It is very possible that Hun Sen might feel more comfortable with Ranariddh being president of FUNCINPEC rather than Sirivudh, says Chea Vannath, head of the Center for Social Development in Phnom Penh. The Prime Minister could thus push Sirivudh onto the throne simply to keep him at a safe distance.
Analysts and opposition lawmakers have even suggested that the current Queen Monineath could become regent after Sihanouk's death in order to preserve a degree of continuity. But women are not eligible to assume the throne under the country's constitution. Besides, she is a commoner. Her candidacy underscores how unwilling Cambodians are to contemplate the loss of their deva raja. We want the King to live for 100 years, says Nop Phorn, a 60-year-old farmer. What seems unthinkable today, though, only makes for an unpredictable future.
Reported by Kay Johnson/Phnom Penh