2004.10.30 Former dancer begins reign


PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- King Norodom Sihamoni, the new monarch of Cambodia, loves to dance.

As a boy, he danced the Nutcracker in Prague. As a young man, he performed traditional Korean numbers for the future dictator of North Korea, Kim Jong-il. For more than two decades, he taught classical ballet and Khmer dance in Paris.

But whether the slightly built Sihamoni can master the complex steps of Cambodian governance is the question of the moment in this Southeast Asian nation.

"This time, the dancing will be different," said Kek Galabru, head of the local human-rights group Licadho, who has known the prince since childhood. Because Sihamoni has spent most of his adulthood as a performer rather than a politician, Galabru predicted, "As king, he will reign but not rule."

Sihamoni has kept such a low profile that most Cambodians know little about him.

"I know that he is a ballet teacher, though he never performed in Cambodia," said Prince Sisowath Thomico, Sihamoni's first cousin. "I know he has made one or two movies in Cambodia, but I am not acquainted with them." Sihamoni's father, King Norodom Sihanouk, is an avid filmmaker, and Sihamoni starred in his production of "The Little Prince."

After living most of his 51 years in the shadow of his larger-than-life father, he took an oath to serve the country at a ceremony in Phnom Penh, the capital, on Friday.

"I am extremely touched to have the opportunity to devote my physical and mental strength and intelligence to serve the nation and the people, and to continue the tradition and glorious achievements of my father," King Sihamoni said after the ceremony.

While many wished their new ruler well, they were curious how he would help heal a nation divided by fractious politics, crushing poverty, a mounting AIDS crisis and the legacy of 1.7 million killed during the Khmer Rouge genocides of the 1970s.

"Gasoline needs to be cheaper. Do you think the king can help us with that?" asked Kong Saram, a court clerk who earns $30 a month.

Under the Cambodian constitution, any Cambodian male over age 30 is eligible for the Throne Council to anoint as the next king if he's a descendant of the 19th Century King Anglong. That there are literally hundreds of potential candidates hasn't stopped interest in whether Sihamoni would marry and have children.

"He loves women as sisters," Sihanouk told reporters. "He is afraid of women when he is in a serious relationship."

Sihanouk abdicated this month after more than six decades of rule, both within the country and in exile. Sihanouk claimed he stepped down for health reasons. But he had also warned that the failure to choose a new king before his death could spark political strife and possibly end a royal line that stretches back to the 13th-century god-kings of the Angkor empire.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has governed the country for the past two decades, has long been thought to want to end the monarchy.

"Sihanouk didn't trust Hun Sen to continue the monarchy after he's gone," said Steven Heder, a lecturer in Southeast Asian politics at the School of Oriental and Asian Studies in London. "No one expects the son to rule with the same political authority as the father."

Sihamoni has shown a preference for the simple life. In 1992, Sihamoni was appointed Cambodia's ambassador to the United Nations. But he preferred life in Paris and, the following year, returned there to serve as Cambodia's ambassador to UNESCO, a post he held until recently.

In Paris, he lived in a small, walk-up apartment near the Eiffel Tower. "He's always been single and never needed a big flat," said cousin Thomico. "He never liked to take an official vehicle. He always preferred the metro."

Galabru recalled that once, Sihamoni took off his shoes and walked through the mud to reach the famous Angkor Wat temples during a rainy season visit. "People were so surprised that the son of our king would walk through the mud," she said. "And they loved him for being so humble.

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