2004.10.29 New king for Cambodia

                New Era for Cambodia as King Sihamoni Ascends Throne

Fri 29 October, 2004 14:05


By Ed Cropley

PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - In a ceremony full of pageantry and hope, King Norodom Sihamoni has ascended the Cambodian throne, ushering in a new royal era for a country still trying to draw a line under its bloody, genocidal past.

In accordance with Buddhist tradition, the 51-year-old Sihamoni, a previously unknown ballet aficionado, took triple oaths of dedication to Cambodia's 13 million people in a spectacular ceremony in the capital's gilded royal throne hall.

"As from this happy and solemn day, I shall devote my body and soul to the service of the people and the nation, pursuing the exceptional work accomplished by my august father, grandfather and great-grandfather," Sihamoni said on Friday.

His hastily arranged coronation came after the shock abdication of his ailing father, Norodom Sihanouk, this month.

State television broadcast blanket live coverage of the speeches, blessings and pageantry -- the end of an era for the war-scarred Southeast Asian nation, as Sihanouk, one of the world's most enduring Cold War leaders, bows out of public life.

The 81-year-old now ex-king, who will still bear a lengthy royal title, was not at the investiture, which was attended by Prime Minister Hun Sen, members of the National Assembly and scores of foreign diplomats.

Many Cambodians hope the smooth transition to a new head of state marks a fresh start for a nation still recovering from the horrors of the Khmer Rouge genocide, four years of terror in the 1970s which claimed an estimated 1.7 million lives.

At Buddhist temples across the country, monks banged huge wooden drums on the stroke of 6 pm (1100 GMT) to usher in the new monarch.

However, diplomats say it is unlikely Sihanouk will set his son, who has never held political office, loose in Cambodia's fractious and often bloody political arena without considerable guidance.

"I think we will see the hand of Sihanouk on the tiller of the monarchy for some time to come -- certainly until Sihamoni has found his feet," said one Western diplomat.


A day replete with pomp and circumstance started with Sihanouk anointing his son, resplendent in traditional gold raiments, with holy water taken from a spring near the 800-year-old temples of Angkor Wat.

Flanked by saffron-robed Buddhist monks and black-suited North Korean bodyguards, Sihamoni then clasped his hands in Buddhist supplication and offered prayers to the morning sun rising slowly over the Mekong river.

For the oath-swearing ceremony itself he was carried on the shoulders of eight silk-clad courtiers through the grounds of the palace where he and his father were held once captive by Pol Pot's ultra-Maoist guerrillas for three years.

Hundreds of courtiers wound through the palace gardens in front of the monarch-in-waiting, bearing bowls of incense, flowers and ivory tusks. A chorus of conches greeted his arrival at the throne hall.


In days to come, Sihamoni faces a daunting task as constitutional monarch of mediating between Cambodia's politicians, some of whom are bitter enemies, frequently accused of corruption, arrogance and abuse of power.

His status as an almost complete outsider, having spent most of his adult life abroad, could be his most powerful tool.

"According to the constitution, the king must be politically neutral. He is the father of the nation, and not involved in politics," Sihamoni's half-brother and royalist party leader Prince Norodom Ranariddh told reporters.

"I am so excited to see that his attitude and character is subtle and gentle. He is so appropriate to be the king of Cambodia," said Ranariddh, a former co-prime minister who was deemed too political to be monarch.

Ordinary Cambodians, for whom life is a daily struggle against some of the most acute poverty in Asia, are also praying that Sihamoni does not try to rock the political boat -- something that often precipitates bullets and bloodshed.

"He is a good man -- no politics," said taxi driver Cham Ly.

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