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2004.11.05 New king in 1st rural foray

KAMPONG SPEU, Cambodia (AFP) - Cambodia's new King Norodom Sihamoni won over thousands of curious farmers who converged here Wednesday to hear his first speech in the provinces, the traditional support base of the monarchy.

King Sihamoni, little known here until he was named as king after the abdication of his father Norodom Sihanouk last month, was greeted by excited subjects in the rice-farming heartland of Kampong Speu, 45 kilometres (28 miles) southwest of Phnom Penh.

Speaking to an audience that also included students packed into a school courtyard, he called on people to unite under the country's leadership "to develop our religion and make Cambodia strong with stability and prosperity".

The king, who reigns but does not rule, said he would follow the example his father had set in the predominantly Buddhist kingdom.

Wearing a short-sleeved, simple grey safari suit, he told reporters that meeting the people was "a great honour for me ... Today I am very happy to see my beloved compatriots face-to-face".

The 82-year-old Sihanouk, who was enormously popular in Cambodia's countryside where people regarded him as a demi-god, stepped down from the throne last month citing ill health and a wish to see a smooth transition.

The crowd jostled fiercely to touch the king's hand before and after his ten-minute address, giving him a strong showing of approval, just as their city counterparts had done during his three-day coronation.

"I am lucky today, I managed to touch his hand. It was very cool. He looked like a very gentle and respectful man," said rice farmer Sam Seuon, 22.

Another farmer from the province, which has been suffering from drought, said she hoped King Sihamoni, an ex-ballet dancer and cultural diplomat, would successfully follow in the footsteps of his charismatic father.

"I am very excited to see him for the first time. I strongly hope that he will lead the people of the country to reach prosperity in the future ... His voice is very sweet. He is suited to be the king," Sim Tom, 32, told AFP.

Following a routine his father established, King Sihamoni donated blankets, sarongs, books and pens to the community during his visit, conducted amid tight security.
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 [pk]
 05.11.2004