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Cambodia Scrambles to Name New King - 2004-10-10

Cambodia's King Norodom Sihanouk's abdication statement last week stunned the nation and left politicians scrambling to figure out how to choose a new king. Prince Norodom Sihamoni, the only son of the king's favorite wife, is seen as the prince most likely to become king.

Cambodia's political leaders have been begging King Norodom Sihanouk not to abdicate, but by Friday, Cambodia's national assembly had already started the difficult task of replacing the popular monarch.

The controversy erupted Thursday when the king, instead of returning from a 10-month self-imposed exile in North Korea and China, announced his abdication, citing poor health. Royal biographer and Cambodian historian Milton Osborne says the ailing monarch does not appear likely to change his mind.

"He does feel that time has passed him by and that Cambodian politics have passed him by," said Mr. Osborne.

The king's unexpected decision to give up his crown has thrown Cambodia's politicians off balance. Cambodia's 1993 constitution has no provision for abdication, so entirely new laws have to be enacted.

On Friday, the national assembly started the process, setting up a "royal throne council" that has seven days to appoint a new king after Sihanouk dies, retires, or abdicates.

According to the constitution, the new King must be older than 30 and come from one of three royal families.

Mr. Osborne says there are at least 30 candidates for the throne, but the king's favorite wife's only son, Prince Norodom Sihamoni, is seen as the front-runner.

"There are a couple of other princes who might have harbored a hope to gain the throne, but they seem to have been in a sense bought off by being given new honorific titles about three weeks ago, leaving the way open for Sihamoni," he said.

The 51-year-old Sihamoni lives in Paris and recently resigned his post as a U.N. cultural ambassador to join his father in Beijing. This has fueled speculation that he will be the next king of Cambodia.

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen says the royal council may vote on Sihamoni's candidacy as soon as next week.

For more than 60 years, King Norodom Sihanouk has been a unifying symbol for a country devastated by civil war and genocide.

In the 1950s, the king helped gain Cambodia's independence from France. During the brutal rule of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, he spent four years under house arrest while the Maoist government killed almost one-fourth of the population. During the atrocities, the king lost five of his own children and 13 grandchildren.

In a message posted to his personal website this week, the king told his supporters he was simply too old and too tired to stay on.