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Prince Sihamoni named Cambodian king
Updated: 2004-10-15 09:19

Retiring King Norodom Sihanouk's son, a former ballet dancer and U.N. cultural ambassador, was officially confirmed Thursday to succeed his father on the throne, assuring the continuation of the ancient monarchy.

Prince Norodom Sihamoni, who has spent much of his life abroad, was unanimously approved by a nine-member Throne Council, said a statement signed by the panel's chairman, Chea Sim, who is also the country's acting head of state.

Portrait provided by the Cambodian government on Thursday, Oct. 14, 2004 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia shows new King Norodom Sihamoni, one of King Norodom Sihanouk's sons. [Xinhua]
The meeting was triggered by the 81-year-old Sihanouk's surprise abdication last week for health reasons. His ailments over the past decade have included colon cancer, diabetes, hypertension and two strokes.

Sihanouk and Prime Minister Hun Sen had both warned that failure to choose a new king by Thursday could have threatened the continued existence of the monarchy and might destabilize this poor country of 13 million people.

Sihamoni, 51, is with Sihanouk in Beijing, where the monarch has been receiving medical treatment. They are expected to return to Cambodia next Wednesday, and a coronation ceremony is planned for Oct. 29, said Sihamoni's half-brother Ranariddh, who is head of the National Assembly.

Sihanouk once said Sihamoni "would probably decline that royal job which he finds frightening." But after abdicating, the king made clear that it was his son's royal duty to accept the crown if offered.

No one expects Sihamoni to dominate the country like his father, whose reign was marked by deep falls from grace and astonishing comebacks, most notably his ill-fated alliance with the communist Khmer Rouge, responsible for the deaths of 1.7 million Cambodians.

But having Sihamoni appointed to the throne helps Sihanouk ensure the survival of a monarchy that stretches back to the 13th-century splendor of the Angkor empire and whose future had been questionable in the face of a government dominated by former communists.

"With Sihamoni in place .... the monarchy is preserved, but only as a shadow of what it once was in the 1950s and 60s," said Milton Osborne, one of Sihanouk's biographers.

Sihamoni, who never married, has long been considered the choice of his mother, Queen Monineath.

The other possibility had been Prince Ranariddh, who served as his father's political proxy for more than two decades, as head of the royalist party and a former prime minister. But Ranariddh had said repeatedly he was not interested in being king.

Born in 1953, Sihamoni went to school in Prague, Czechoslovakia, at age 9, graduating in 1975 from the Academy of Musical Art. Later, he studied film-making in North Korea, according to his official biography.

From early 1976 until January 1978, he was a prisoner of the Khmer Rouge.

Sihanouk had been ousted as Cambodia's supreme political leader in 1970, and then allied himself with the Khmer Rouge against his usurpers.

After the Khmer Rouge won a civil war in 1975, Sihanouk and royal family members flew home, only to be detained at the royal palace.

"During that time, we saw no one," Sihamoni said in a rare interview in 1995 with the Phnom Penh Post. "For food, we grew vegetables and fruit in the garden of the palace. Twice a week, Khmer Rouge guards came to the back door and gave us rice and fish. We cooked everything ourselves ... We wore black clothes given to us by the Khmer Rouge. We washed everything ourselves."

"This period was a very unhappy one, especially for our morale. My father's morale was low," Sihamoni said. "I got on with things. I am very physical, being a dancer, so I worked in the gardens. I cleaned out the throne hall."

After a Vietnamese invasion drove the Khmer Rouge from power in early 1979, Sihamoni spent the next two years as secretary to his father in Beijing.

As Sihanouk rallied a coalition of guerrilla groups to oust the Vietnamese-installed government, Sihamoni went to Paris, where many Cambodian refugees had settled. He taught and performed ballet and classical Khmer dance.

In 1992, he briefly served as Cambodia's envoy at the United Nations after Sihanouk's guerrillas reached a peace agreement with the government in Phnom Penh. The accord led to elections and Sihanouk's restoration as king in 1993.

From then until this year, Sihamoni served as ambassador to UNESCO, promoting Cambodian culture while working on the issue of stolen artifacts.

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