Connect to share and comment

Cambodia's king is dead, long live the PM

PlacardEnlarge
(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

He towered over his kingdom through tumultuous decades. Yet when Cambodia's "king father" Norodom Sihanouk finally ceded power, experts say, it was not to his heir but to strongman premier Hun Sen.

Since his death in October in Beijing, Cambodia has paid homage to the man who was king, prime minister, head of state, then king once more, before stepping down in favour of his son Sihamoni in 2004.

An elaborate week-long funeral, which ends on Thursday, has drawn throngs of mourners to Phnom Penh's streets to bid farewell to the beloved royal, whose embalmed body had been lying in state for three months.

The shrewd political operator remained a dominant figure for more than half a century marked by independence from France, civil war, the murderous Khmer Rouge regime, his own exile and finally peace.

But he leaves behind a politically weak institution.

When Sihanouk returned to the throne in 1993, analysts say it was only after striking a deal with prime minister and one-time Khmer Rouge cadre Hun Sen that allowed the premier to exercise full political power.

"This rather weird couple was a political set up," said Hugues Tertrais, a history professor at the Pantheon-Sorbonne University in Paris.

"As Norodom Sihanouk abdicated relatively early in favor of Sihamoni, the formula has remained the same, even though Sihamoni does not have his father's charisma."

The decision to pass the crown to Sihamoni, now 59, rather than to his oldest and more politically ambitious son Ranariddh was seen by some diplomats as an attempt to ensure the survival of the monarchy, albeit one with little power.

Widely seen as disconnected from his country's politics, Sihamoni -- a keen amateur dancer who was Cambodia's Ambassador to UNESCO in Paris at the time -- made what is widely described as a reluctant return to Phnom Penh.

Sihanouk's choice of heir was supported by Hun Sen, "perhaps because Sihamoni is apolitical and believed to be relatively pliable," according to a US diplomatic memo dated October 2004 published by WikiLeaks.

"Since reassuming the throne in 1993, Sihanouk has seen his power progressively eroded by powerful politicians, especially Hun Sen, and a more open political system," it added.

Sihamoni has since firmly stuck to his role as a symbolic head of state, respecting the deal struck between his father and Hun Sen, an authoritarian leader who has vowed to stay in office until he is 90, some three decades from now.

"Sihamoni has almost no freedom of action," said David Chandler, a Cambodian expert at Australia's Monash University.

The reluctant king is by all accounts "an admirable, astute but unambitious and apolitical person. He never wanted to be king. Hun Sen, to be safe, has more or less locked him in a box," he added.

More than ever, Hun Sen dominates Cambodian politics despite fierce criticism for overseeing a venal regime responsible for rampant land grabs and harassment of dissidents.

When US President Barack Obama visited in November, he held what he described as a "tense" meeting with the Cambodian strongman, explaining human rights violations were an "obstacle" to bilateral relations.

"Hun Sen is now more powerful than ever," said Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights (CCHR).

"For anything happening in the country, all fingers are pointed to Hun Sen. That is what happened in the old days with Sihanouk."

Since 2008, Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (PPC) has held 90 of the 123 seats in the lower house of parliament, and there are few doubts that he will win elections in July.

His ambitions echo those of Sihanouk who remained in power -- or close to it -- for some six decades from independence to peace, the golden age of the 50s and 60s but also civil war and two million deaths under the Khmer Rouge.

"Hun Sen could be a kind of Sihanouk without the title. He has overcome all times and all changes," Tertrais said.

"Sihanouk has spent 63 years in power, or interested in power," he added. "This may well be a model for Hun Sen who became a minister at age 27 and is now aged 60. He still has a long time ahead of him."

dla/apj/dr/ia

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130206/cambodias-king-dead-long-live-the-pm