2004.10.29 Three-day coronation begins for Cambodia's new king

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) - Cambodia began three days of celebrations Thursday as its new king, former ballet dancer Norodom Sihamoni, prepared to take over the throne from his father, Norodom Sihanouk, adored by his people for more than 60 years.

Workers put the finishing touches on decorations and cleaned up the boulevards for dignitaries traveling to the Royal Palace where Sihamoni, 51, will be enthroned Friday.

Police barred traffic in front of the golden-colored palace _ a popular spot for locals and tourists to relax _ where a huge portrait of Sihamoni has replaced one of his mother and father.

A ceremony organizer, Kem Gunnawath, said more than 200 dignitaries were expected to witness Friday's event.

"This is the most magnificent national event. Inside my heart, I feel nothing but joy,'' Prince Norodom Ranariddh, Sihamoni's half brother, said Thursday.

Ranariddh, leader of the royalist Funcinpec Party _ a coalition partner in the government _ had been a potential candidate to succeed Sihanouk.

But he declined so he could remain active in politics.

Cambodia's king is seldom involved in day-to-day politics, but the position carries huge cultural significance for the Cambodian, or Khmer, people, and the king has some influence on government decisions.

Sihamoni, Sihanouk's son with former Queen Monineath, has no political experience and is better known for his ballet dancing. Until recently, he served as Cambodia's ambassador to the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, in Paris.

Sihamoni was selected as new king by a nine-member throne council on Oct. 14, a week after Sihanouk, who turns 82 on Sunday, abdicated, claiming poor health.

Sihamoni reluctantly accepted the job, expressing concern that his inexperience might hamper his ability to carry out his duties.

"I will do my utmost to serve the Khmer nation and people with all my abilities,'' he said after arriving with his parents from China last week.

Ranariddh said his brother "will carry on the legacy'' of Sihanouk, whom most Cambodians consider the father of Cambodia's "independence, territorial integrity and national unity.''

Sihanouk has asked that preparations for the hand-over ceremony be low-key because he doesn't want to see the impoverished country lavish a lot of money on the event.

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