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Cambodian King Nears End of Long Political Career - 2004-10-12


Cambodia's legislature has voted to allow a nine-member council to choose a successor to King Norodom Sihanouk, 81, who abdicated last week. Under the law, the council must name a new king by Thursday, or the monarchy could be abolished. VOA's Heda Bayron in Hong Kong looks back at King Sihanouk's long political life.

King Norodom Sihanouk was only 19 years old when the French colonial government picked him for the throne in 1941. Despite being a political novice, King Sihanouk transformed the role of a Cambodian monarch from merely ceremonial to immensely powerful and popular.

Shortly after winning independence from France in 1953, the king abdicated the throne in favor of his father and chose a more hands-on political role as Cambodia's head of state. For the most of the 1950s and 1960s, Mr. Sihanouk ruled unopposed.

David Chandler, an American expert on Cambodia says Mr. Sihanouk was a hard-working and patriotic leader, but he was also an authoritarian.

"He was a dictator certainly, but a very popular dictator among the ordinary people," he says. "The opposition couldn't get itself organized, political parties were smashed."

Nevertheless, King Sihanouk endeared himself to the Cambodian people by reaching out to his subjects in a way no other monarch did.

At times, he indulged in his extravagant artistic hobbies such as filmmaking, music and publishing.

King Sihanouk's rule abruptly ended in 1970 as the tide of communism sweeping through Indochina finally reached Cambodia, with Vietnamese forces encroaching on its borders.

Indochina expert Carl Thayer at Australia's Defense Force Academy says King Sihanouk's efforts to keep his kingdom neutral during the Vietnam War failed.

"Initially he swam with the mainstream in Southeast Asia, which was the movement of neutrality," he notes. "But rapidly, as the Cold War set in, he lost the ability to manipulate and he was overthrown when he was overseas begging Moscow and Beijing to stop their support for it [the Vietnam War]."

While in exile in China, King Sihanouk plotted his return and eventually settled into an alliance with the radical communist group, Khmer Rouge. Historians say this was to be his greatest mistake.

As the Khmer Rouge gained control of the country in 1975, King Sihanouk returned to Phnom Penh. But he remained in house detention for most of the regime's genocidal rule, which claimed the lives of more than one million people, including five of the king's 14 children.

Vietnam ousted the Khmer Rouge in 1979, and Sihanouk again found himself in exile. Again, King Sihanouk allied with the Khmer Rouge against the Vietnamese-installed government.

Only after the 1991 United Nations peace agreement did King Sihanouk return to Phnom Penh. He regained the throne in 1993.

In the years since, the King's political influence waned and more than once he has threatened to abdicate during political crises. The aging King was on an extended stay in China for medical treatment when he announced his abdication last week.

Speculation is high that his son, Prince Norodom Sihamoni, until recently Cambodia's ambassador to the United Nations education and cultural agency, will be chosen to succeed his father.