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Cambodia's New King Comes Home

By Alan Sipress
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, October 21, 2004; Page A21

JAKARTA, Indonesia, Oct. 20 -- Norodom Sihamoni returned home to Cambodia on Wednesday, appointed as the country's new king to replace his father, Norodom Sihanouk, who abdicated this month.

After spending most of his life in Europe as a ballet choreographer, dancer and professor of classical arts, Sihamoni arrived in Phnom Penh from Beijing, where his father had been receiving medical treatment. He was welcomed by hundreds of dignitaries at the airport and thousands of schoolchildren lining the roads. He was escorted on his homecoming by his father, who is 81.


Norodom Sihamoni, a dancer and professor of classical arts, talks to well-wishers in Phnom Penh. (Adrees Latif -- Reuters)

Sihamoni is scheduled to be crowned Oct. 29, assuming a position that is largely ceremonial but important for unifying a country recovering from the ravages of genocide and war.

"He seems like he'll be a chip off the old block in some ways but not all ways," said Verghese Mathews, Singapore's former ambassador to Cambodia. "He has the same love of the people, but he's more predictable and less flamboyant."

Sihamoni, 51, was born 12 years into Sihanouk's 63-year career. Sihanouk dominated the political life of the country, conspiring with rebels and royals, alternately playing international statesman and palace intriguer.

Sihamoni was always considered his father's favorite son, returning to Phnom Penh for the monarch's birthdays and traveling to his bedside when he was ill, according to Mathews, now a visiting fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. For at least two years, Sihanouk made clear that he wanted Sihamoni as his successor and lined up supporters, in particular Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Sihamoni has remained distant from public life and is little-known among his subjects. Several other members of the royal family, most notably Sihamoni's half-brother, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, became enmeshed in Cambodian politics.

"I am afraid that I cannot fulfill this great duty well because of my lack of experience," Sihamoni said, apologizing to the Cambodian people, after being named king last week. In a message written from Beijing, Sihamoni swore to remain impartial.

"I solemnly promise that I am neutral to all politicians, political parties, and will follow the great policy of my father, the father of independence, national unity and conciliation," he said.

Sihamoni shared his family's passion for the arts. As a child, he studied traditional Cambodian dance with his sister, who went on to become an acclaimed performer in the national ballet. By 14, he starred in a Cambodian movie, "The Little Prince," shot by his father, an avid filmmaker.

After Sihanouk was temporarily ousted in a 1970 coup by U.S.-backed elements of the Cambodian military, Sihamoni enrolled in a conservatory in Prague, studying dance, theater and music. He later studied film in North Korea before returning to Cambodia in 1976 after the communist Khmer Rouge took power. He and his family were held under house arrest in the royal palace before he was able to flee, moving to Paris in 1981.

There, he became a professor of classical dance at three leading institutions and formed his own troupe, Ballet Deva, choreographing some of the group's performances. Since the early 1990s, he was also Cambodia's envoy to UNESCO.

Until Sihanouk mentioned his son as possible heir two years ago, Sihamoni had given no indication he intended to return to Cambodia.

"I don't think at any prior time Sihamoni thought he'd be king," Mathews said.


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