KING SIHAMONI

KING SIHAMONI

King Sihanouk was succeeded by his son Norodom Sihamoni, a modest, gentle dancer, choreographer and cultural ambassador who had spent most of his life in France. He was selected by his father in October 2004 and was little known before then even in Cambodia.

His Majesty King Norodom Sihamoni was crowned in Phnom Penh on October 29, 2004. He is the son of His Majesty Norodom Sihanouk, former King of Cambodia and of Her Majesty Queen Norodom Monineath Sihanouk of Cambodia. His selection was endorsed by Prime Minister Hun Sen and National Assembly Speaker Prince Norodom Ranariddh (the new king's brother), both members of the throne council.

King Sihamoni was elected as new king by Cambodia’s Throne Council. He was 51 when he took the throne. His full name is King Preah Bat Samdech Preaj Baromneath Norodom Sihamoni. In his first address as king he told a crowd of 50,000 that he promised to be a “faithful and loyal servant.” Before he took office he apologized for a “lack of experience” and promised “not to interfere.” As king, his title is: Preah Karuna Preah Bat Sâmdach Preah Bâromneath Norodom Sihamoni Nai Preah Reacheanachak Kampuchea (in romanized Khmer); roughly translating to: His Majesty, King Norodom Sihamoni of the Kingdom of Cambodia. His given name, Sihamoni, comprises two morphemes from his parent's given names, Sihanouk and Monineath.

King Sihamoni is one of two children of King Sihanouk and his widow and last wife Queen Norodom Monineath. He has few enemies. He was educated in Prague and worked as a professional dancer, choreographer and dance teacher in Paris, and was involved in UNESCO affairs In 2002, King Sihanouk began promoting him as his successor. He reportedly needed some prodding to take the position. In 1997, Sihanouk said Sihamoni "would probably decline" the opportunity to become king.

The Thai newspaper The Nation reported: “Like his father, the current king is seen as outgoing, artistic and approachable and likes to tour poverty-stricken rural Cambodia on fact-finding missions. He oversees state affairs but has no constitutional role in politics. [Source: The Nation, October 16, 2012]

King Sihamoni’s Early Life and Education

Norodom Sihamoni was born on Thursday May 14, 1953, in Phnom Penh. He is the eldest son of King Norodom Sihanouk and his sixth wife, Norodom Monineath Sihanouk. As his birthday May 14 was the date on which his father returned to Phnom Penh from his visit to Japan, Sihamoni was nicknamed ‘Tokio.’ For Japan, King Norodom Sihamoni’s father’s visit to the Imperial Palace was the first by an Asian king after World War II. Sihamoni has 14 half-brothers and half-sisters by his father's various relationships; his only full sibling, a younger brother, HRH Samdech Norodom Narindrapong (born 1954) died in 2003.

Sihamoni spent his childhood from 1962 to 1975 in Prague, where he got his basic education and studied classical dance, ballet and music. He is fluent in French, Czech, English and Russian. After studying filmmaking in North Korea from 1975 to 1977, he returned to his home land and was put under arrest by the ruling Khmer Rouge with the rest of the royal family until 1979.

Education Background: 1959-1962: Primary schooling at the Norodom school and then at the Descartes high school in Phnom Penh (Cambodia). 1962-1967: Primary and Secondary schooling at Prague's high school (Czechoslovakia). 1967-1971: Dance, music and theatre courses at the National Conservatory of Prague. 1970: High school certificate -Prague (with "very good" marks). 1971: First prize course of classical dance of the National Conservatory of Prague. 1971-1975: Higher dance, music and theatre courses, Academy of Musical Art of Prague. 1975: Graduated from the Academy of Musical Art of Prague. 1975: Author of a thesis on the conception and administration of artistic schools in Cambodia. 1975-1976: Higher studies of Cinematography in the D.P.R. of Korea

During the 1970 coup d'état by Lon Nol, Sihamoni remained in Czechoslovakia. In 1975, he left Prague and began to study filmmaking in North Korea, and in 1977 returned to his native Cambodia. According to Associated Press: “Sihamoni was sent for schooling at the age of nine to Prague in what was then Czechoslovakia, where he graduated in 1975 from the Academy of Musical Art. Later, he studied film-making - a favourite pastime of his father - in North Korea, according to his official biography. As a boy, he even starred in his father's films. Then, from early 1976 until January 1978, he was a prisoner of the Khmer Rouge. Together with the rest of the royal family, he was detained at the royal palace under threat of death while an estimated one-point-seven (m) million of his countrymen perished. He spent these years digging in the palace gardens and mopping the floor of the same room where he is expected to ascend the throne later this month. [Source: Associated Press]

King Sihamoni’s Personal Life and Character

Sihamoni remains a bachelor and has no children. His father Sihanouk once stated that Sihamoni "loves women as his sisters". Having no children means Sihamoni does not have a direct successor if one were to be required. However, this should not be a problem as the King in Cambodia is selected by the throne council. Sihamoni speaks Khmer, French, Czech, English and Russian. He is the first Czech speaking monarch after Ferdinand I of Austria.

Associated Press reported: “No one expects the 51-year-old prince to dominate his long-suffering country as his legendary father, King Norodom Sihanouk, once did. The public knows little about the prince compared to his elder half-brother, Norodom Ranariddh, who has been politically active for years, but lost a series of power struggles to Prime Minister Hun Sen. Sihamoni, the favourite son of Sihanouk and Queen Monineath, had an early passion for ballet and choreography. He never married, has no political experience. [Source: AP]

It is thought that Hun Sen believes him to be a weak figure who will pose no threat to his power. Cambodian expert Steve Heder says that Sihamoni is unlikely to display any of the "courageous political interventions" that his father carried out. But the French, Cambodia's colonial masters, similarly assumed Sihanouk would be their puppet when they appointed him king in 1941 at the age of 18. Instead, Sihanouk led a royal crusade for independence, achieved in 1953.

Historian Claude Jacques, who got to know Sihamoni during his time with UNESCO, said his principal quality was his kindness, though he said he exhibited the "aspect of a king". Jacques said Sihamoni's background as a dancer would be beneficial in a country where the practice plays such an important role.

Decorations received by Sihamoni: 1) Grand cross of the Royal order of Cambodia; 2) Grand cross of the Royal order of Monisaraphon (Cambodia); 3) Grand officer of the legion d'honneur (France); 4) Silver medal of the city of Paris (France)

King Sihamoni’s Career

In 1981, Sihamoni moved to France, and lived there for nearly 20 years, teaching ballet and then becoming president of the Khmer Dance Association. In 1993, he was appointed Cambo- dia’s delegate to UNESCO and became known for his hard work and his devotion to Cam- bodian culture. Sihamoni spent 11 years as Cambodia's envoy in Paris to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

1976-1979: Prisoner of the Khmer Rouge along with his parents and his younger brother, H.R.H Prince Norodom NarinDrapong. 1979-1980: Served his father in exile abroad as his Private Secretary.1981-2000: Professor of classical dance and artistic pedagogy at the Marius Petipa conservatory, the Gabriel Faure conservatory and the W.A. Mozart conservatory of the city of Paris.

1984-1988: President of the Khmer dance association in France and director general and artistic director of the ballet group "Deva". 1988-1993: Director general and artistic director of the Khmer cinematographic corporation "Khemara Pictures". H.M. Norodom Sihamoni, then Prince, has produced two creations (Ballet-Films): Dream and the 4 Elements. 1992-1993: Chosen unanimously by the members of the Supreme National Council of Cambodia to be permanent representative of Cambodia to the United Nations. 1993-2004: Ambassador of the Kingdom of Cambodia to UNESCO. 2004: Member of the High Council of French-Speaking Countries (Francophonie).

February 1, 1994: Elevated by H.M. the King to the rank of Sdech Krom Khun (Great Prince). October 17, 2003: Appointed high privy Councillor to His Majesty the King. August 31, 2004: Elevated by H.M the King to the Rank of Samdech Preah Baromneath. October 14, 2004: Elected unanimously by the members of the throne council as King of Cambodia to succeed his august father who has decided to retire.

In December. King Sihamoni selected 26 members of the Cambodian royal family to his advisory court. The members include his half-brother Prince Norodom Ranariddh as chief advisor. Other choices included Prince Sisowath Sirirath, Princess Norodom Marie (estranged wife of Prince Ranariddh) and Prince Sisowath Thomico.

According to to Associated Press: “After a Vietnamese invasion drove the Khmer Rouge from power in early 1979, Sihamoni spent the next two years as secretary to his father, in exile in Beijing. He later went to Paris, where many Cambodian refugees had settled, to perpetuate his country's culture. There, he taught and practised ballet and classical Khmer dance. In 1992, he briefly served as Cambodia's envoy at the United Nations and then as ambassador to UNESCO, continuing to promote Cambodian culture while working hard on the issue of stolen artefacts, which has particularly plagued his war-ravaged country. [Source: Associated Press]

King Sihamoni’s Coronation

In October 2004, after the surprise abdication of his father, a special nine-member throne council selected Sihamoni as the successor. Endorsed by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and National Assembly Speaker Prince Norodom Ranariddh, the new king’s half brother, King Norodom Sihamoni was inaugurated and formally anointed on Oct. 29, 2004.

On October 29, 2004, 51-year-old King Sihamoni was officially crowned in an elaborate ceremony that featured blessings chanted by 52 Buddhist monks, the blowing of conch shells and traditional music played with drums and gongs. The new king was brought to the Royal Palace in an ornate golden litter carried by eight bearers. He prayed before golden images of his ancestors in the throne hall of the palace and took an oath in front of his throne. He said the oath three times and follow each with a bow.

Coronation festivities lasted three days. There was a procession from Khemarine Palace, where the king lives, to the Royal Palace. Royal officials carried a golden crown, robe and sword used in the ceremony. They were accompanied by royal guards and musicians playing ceremonial music. More than 200 people attended the functions, including Hun Sen and Prince Ranariddh, Sihamoni’s half brother. Temples around the country filled with well-wishers offering prayers to the new king.

In a ritual bathing ceremony, monks and Sihamoni’s parents—Sihanouk and former Queen Monineath—poured water from the Kulen Mountains on the new king to wash away impurities and increase his prestige and power. Stone from the Kulem Mountains was used to build Angkor Wat. The water there is regarded as particularly pure. Sihamoni wore light golden-colored ceremonial clothing. His mother kissed him on the head. Ranariddh held his hand as he walked to the bath. The coronation was the first such ceremony in 50 years and was much less lavish that it could have been. Sihanouk said “we should save the nation’s money.”

King Sihamoni: the Man Who Would (Rather Not) Be King

James Pringle wrote in the New York Times: “His hands bear the scratches of the Cambodian country folk who fervently clasp them in their own when he visits their villages of stilted wooden homes. This deeply private man now has bodyguards and his austere-looking visage stares down from billboards. King Norodom Sihamoni is public property now...Sihamoni is slowly settling into the sugarplum Royal Palace he exchanged - rather reluctantly - for a modest apartment in the 15th arrondissement of Paris. "The reality is, I don't feel in the least like a king," the new king tells friends here. "I feel just like an ordinary human being, at most a fonctionnaire, a civil servant, whose duty is to serve all the people. Inside, I haven't changed." [Source: James Pringle, New York Times, January 13, 2005 ++]

“The monarch admits to friends that though reconciled to his kingship, he misses private life in Paris - strolling the boulevards, attending movies and theater, browsing in bookshops. The last novel he read before ascending the throne was Philip Roth's "The Human Stain," about an U.S. college professor wrestling with an identity crisis, a dilemma with which the king seemed to empathize. His other favorite author: William Styron.A cosmopolitan man with eclectic tastes, King Sihamoni likes both American country music and the classics - particularly Smetana and Dvorak, who remind him of his Prague youth, plus Wagner, Verdi and Stravinsky. ++

“He starts every day watching news with his father on CNN, BBC and France's TV5 in the Royal Palace, where he and his parents were once terrified prisoners of the Khmer Rouge. The 82-year-old Sihanouk, who won Cambodia independence from France in 1953, explains finer points.Sihamoni is not concerned about murmurs that Sihanouk rules from behind the throne. "My parents were always my valuable teachers," he tells friends. ++

“Sihamoni is a confirmed bachelor. Cambodians are enthusiastic about their new king, whose deep-rooted Buddhism they admire, but regret he has no queen or children. Still, their attitudes are modern enough to live with that. Sihamoni may look austere, yet he smiles easily and shares his father's good humor, if not yet his personal charisma. Cambodians consider monarchy a counterbalance to the tough political class which rules their lives. ++

King Sihamoni and Culture

James Pringle wrote in the New York Times: “Sihamoni has three priorities. The first two are, predictably, to provide education and health care to everyone in his impoverished kingdom...Thirdly, to restore Phnom Penh's King Suramarit national theater, named for his grandfather and built in the 1960s by his father, which became a ruin under the Khmer Rouge, then was destroyed by fire while being renovated in 1995. Sihamoni needs international funding for this huge task, estimated at a cost of $30 million. [Source: James Pringle, New York Times, January 13, 2005]

“Cambodia, which faced first American bombing, then the murderous Khmer Rouge and third a long Vietnamese occupation, is almost a cultural wasteland. The country lacks a single theater. The king seems well placed to bring about a cultural renaissance....Sihamoni's aim is to stage Western opera, ancient Hindu epics, Khmer traditional dance, concerts, ballet, modern dance, musicals - "everything," he says - in the restored theater. He has never forgotten watching, enthralled, Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Cats" on Broadway while visiting New York with his parents....He believes such a theater would stimulate Cambodians' minds, particularly the youth. +

In the theater's burned-out shell the other day, a group of actors, musicians, scene-painters and stage electricians sat reminiscing about happier times. One day, if Cambodia's new king achieves his goal, the national theater's 325 artistes may have something to smile about again, and willing audiences to appreciate them. +

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism of Cambodia, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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