Cambodia is officially a kingdom. The a royal line stretches back to the 13th century splendour of the Angkor empire. The king has traditionally been regarded as a god-king . French scholars have been able to trace a direct line from the great kings of Angkor to the current royal family. Currently the king is a constitutional monarch with few real powers but a great deal of political influence.

The monarchy, especially among older Cambodians, is a defining institution. There is special vocabulary for talking to and about the royal family in Cambodia. Pung Kek, president of the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights, told the New York Times: “Some Cambodians in the countryside like to say, ‘You cannot have a country without a king,’ ” she said.

Cambodia is a constitutional monarchy (the King reigns but does not rule) in similar fashion to Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom. The King is officially the Head of State and is the symbol of unity and "eternity" of the nation, as defined by Cambodia's constitution. Although in the Khmer language there are many words meaning "king", the word officially used in Khmer (as found in the 1993 Cambodian Constitution) is preahmâhaksat, literally means: preah- ("sacred", cognate of the Indian word Brahmin) -mâha- (from Sanskrit, meaning "great", cognate with "maha-" in maharaja) -ksat ("warrior, ruler", cognate of the Indian word Kshatriya). [Source: Wikipedia +]

From September 24, 1993 through October 7, 2004, Norodom Sihanouk reigned as King, after having previously served in a number of offices (including King) since 1941. Under the Constitution, the King has no political power, but as Norodom Sihanouk was revered in the country, his word often carried much influence in the government. For example, in February 2004, he issued a proclamation stating that since Cambodia is a "liberal democracy," the Kingdom ought to allow gay marriage. While such views aren't prevalent in Cambodia, his word was respected by his subjects. The King, often irritated over the conflicts in his government, several times threatened to abdicate unless the political factions in the government got along. This put pressure on the government to solve their differences. This influence of the King was often used to help mediate differences in government. +

After the abdication of King Norodom Sihanouk in 2004, he was succeeded by his son Norodom Sihamoni. While the retired King was highly revered in his country for dedicating his lifetime to Cambodia, the current King has spent most of his life abroad in France. Thus, it remains to be seen whether the new King's views will be as highly respected as his father's. +

Succession to the Cambodia Throne

Unlike most monarchies, Cambodia's monarchy is not necessarily hereditary and the King is not allowed to select his own heir. Instead, a new King is chosen by a Royal Council of the Throne, consisting of the president of the National Assembly, the Prime Minister, the Chiefs of the orders of Mohanikay and Thammayut, and the First and Second Vice-President of the Assembly. The Royal Council meets within a week of the King's death or abdication and selects a new King from a pool of candidates with royal blood. It has been suggested that Cambodia's ability to peacefully appoint a new King shows that Cambodia's government has stabilized incredibly from the situation the country was in during the 1970s. [Source: Wikipedia]

The monarch is not selected on the basis of heredity but must have royal blood. According to the terms of the 1993 constitution hundreds of people related to the past three kings are eligible. The constitution stipulates that a nine-member Throne Council chooses a new king within a week of the death of the old one but does say what criteria should be considered and whether or not a majority decision is enough,.

Hun Sen blocked a bill for several years that aimed to clarify the succession procedure and has said that he would veto any choice he doesn’t like. After he abdicated Sihanouk said: "Once the throne council has decided to choose him as king, he cannot just refuse to agree with that decision".

See King Sihamoni, Angkor, History

Insulting the King

Cambodia has a vaguely worded lese majeste law that makes insulting the king a criminal offense. In October 2010, Associated Press reported: “A Cambodian court found a Chinese factory supervisor guilty of desecrating pictures of the country's recently deceased former king and ordered her deported. The court found Wang Zia Chao guilty of violating statutes on insulting the monarchy and gave her a one-year suspended jail sentence and a 2.5 million riel ($620) fine. She was also ordered to pay 2 million riel ($500) in compensation to a worker at the factory who had demanded her prosecution. The case appeared to be the first in recent decades in which the vaguely worded lese majeste law was applied. [Source: Sopheng Cheang, Associated Press, October 23, 2012]

The 43-year-old Chinese woman caused an uproar at a garment factory complex in Phnom Penh's outskirts when she cut up two photos of former King Norodom Sihanouk that workers were carrying before the morning shift. She accused them of shirking work. Sihanouk died a few days before.

Wang Zia Chao, the Chinese factory supervisor, had accused garment industry employees of shirking work during a week of official mourning for Sihanouk. When she seized the portrait from one worker before a shift and destroyed it, more than 1,000 irate workers protested Monday, eventually marching to the Royal Palace to demand she be punished. Wang told the court that she did not know the photos were of the late monarch. "If I knew, I would not have ripped them up," she said. The factories' managers fired her and turned her over to the authorities.

Phnom Penh police chief Lt. Gen. Chuon Sovann said that if police had not arrived on time, the woman would have been in danger of being physically attacked by the workers. The case touched some sensitive nerves. Foreign investors are a key element in Cambodia's economic growth, while workers represent a potentially powerful domestic political force.

Successors to King Sihanouk

King Sihanouk had 14 children, many of them sons. The two most prominent members of the royal family—Prince Norodom Ranarridh and Prince Norodom Sirivudh—both said they have no wishes to be king. Prince Ranarridh was to involved in Cambodia politics.

A nine-member Throne Council which selects a successor was approved by parliament. Its members include Prime Minister Hun Sen, acting head of state Chea Sime and Prince Ranariddh. Five out nine members are required to approve the new king. . Hun Sen himself reportedly can veto any choice for king. The law call’s for a new king to be approved within seven days of the incumbent’s retirement or death.

King Sihanouk was able to chose his successor because there is no provision in the constitution for abdication and Hun Sen seemed to accept the situation and allow Sihanouk to carry out his plan. The Throne Council formally announced the selection of the new king.

King Sihanouk is said to have wanted to select a successor before he died to prevent a bloodbath and political chaos over the succession. he said, “My abdication allows me to give our political system, our nation and our people a serious opportunity to avoid mortal turmoil the day after my death.”

See Royal Family, Government

Wikileaks-Released US Embassy Cables on the Cambodian Royal Family

In July 2011, WikiLeaks released its small cache of Cambodia-related dispatches. The 777 cables from the US Embassy in Phnom Penh span the period from 1992 to 2010, nearly the entire life of democratic Cambodia. Cambodia's feckless royalists provide a target-rich environment for sharp-tongued US diplomats. "Cambodia's royal family", states one May 2006 cable (06PHNOMPENH839), "is a tragedy, comedy and melodrama all rolled into one that could have provided grist for at least a half dozen Shakespeare plays." [Source: Sebastian Strangio, Asia Times, July 27, 2011 ^^]

A particular target is Prince Norodom Ranariddh, then leader of the FUNCINPEC party, whose limelight-stealing antics following the October 2004 abdication of King Norodom Sihanouk and the accession of the prince's half-brother Sihamoni prompted some colorful take-downs from embassy officials. One cable (04PHNOMPENH1701), titled "Cambodia's Man Who Won't Be King - Ranariddh's Snit Fit", paints a picture of a prince acting in "childish and petulant" manner, out of apparent pique at being "passed over for a younger half-brother as King". ^^

“In one instance documented in the cable, Ranariddh flew into a rage when he had the central palace gates closed in his face while he was attempting to follow the king's motorcade, ordering the dismissal of the palace's head of security; a few days later, he failed to attend a Buddhist coronation ceremony for royals. "[R]ather than raising his stature," the cable concluded, "he is increasingly making himself a laughing stock." In a December 2009 cable (09PHNOMPENH920), following FUNCINPEC's implosion at the 2008 national elections, ambassador Rodley wrote that the moribund royalists "don't have much of a presence, or a future" in Cambodian politics. ^^

In contrast, the cables paint a positive picture of King Sihamoni, describing his "regal" behavior during his coronation (04PHNOMPENH1701). Another dispatch following the coronation (04PHNOMPENH1985) claimed that he had brought "a new sense of dignity to the royal house" and was a welcome change to Sihanouk and the wayward Ranariddh."His careful, well-modulated speeches, though prompted as much by his lack of familiarity with his native Khmer as anything, have been a welcome change from the high-pitched speech characteristic of his father and older half brother," it stated. ^^

Different Views of the Monarchy by Different Generations

Ker Munthit of Associated Press wrote: “Older Cambodians say there was a time, many years ago, when their country was peaceful and prosperous under the strong but benevolent hand of Norodom Sihanouk. The parents of motorbike taxi driver Yien Lion, 40, used to tell him how popular Sihanouk was in the 1960s, which they recalled as "the good old days." But such nostalgia doesn't exist for Cambodians of Yien Lion's age or younger. And that could mean bad news for the future of the country's centuries-old monarchy. [Source: Ker Munthit, Associated Press, October 16, 2004]

Sambo Manara, a college history professor, found "very little reaction" among his students. He attributes that indifference to not having lived at a time when Sihanouk wielded great power. Young people today "are more interested in the direction of development for the country, be it a monarchy or a republic," he said.

Sao Sopheap, a 24-year-old employee of the nonprofit group Family Health International, said Sihamoni's accession establishes an important link between young people and a royal tradition dating back to the 13th-century Angkor empire. "Monarchy is indispensable for us," he said. "I would be so sad if it disappears one day."

Steve Heder, a Cambodia expert from London's School of Oriental and African Studies, said Sihamoni _ a former ballet dancer with little political experience must play a leading role if he is to revive the monarchy's popularity.If he fails to challenge what the Cambodians see as injustices of the current regime, then "the monarchy will be further reduced to just a kind of curiosity," he said.

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.

Last updated May 2014

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