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Cambodia's Future King Sihamoni Returns Home - 2004-10-12

After the surprise abdication of the popular monarch last week, Cambodia's Throne Council has chosen a new king. Prince Norodom Sihamoni is known for his contribution to the arts, but has largely stayed out of politics. The 51-year-old prince is an unlikely successor to his father's throne. The former dance teacher and U.N. ambassador has lived in Paris for more than 20 years and recently said he had no interest in becoming king.

Royal watchers in Cambodia say his reign as king is bound to differ from his father's. The elderly Sihanouk was intimately involved in government affairs and twice served as prime minister. Royal biographer and Cambodian expert Milton Osborne says the elusive prince is barely known in the nation's capital, Phnom Penh.

"Sihamoni is a political cipher, at least in terms of any involvement in Cambodia's affairs," said Mr. Osborne.

It is precisely this non-political quality that may have prompted Sihanouk to choose as his successor Sihamoni over his other sons. Cambodia's leaders, including Prince Norodom Ranariddh head of the National Assembly, have been bitterly divided since elections last year. So much so that Cambodia was without a government for almost a year.

Prince Sihamoni was best known for his work as a cultural ambassador in Europe and his keen support for the arts. In the late 1960s and '70s he studied classical dance in Prague and then filmmaking in North Korea. In 1981 he moved to France to teach ballet and was later president of the Khmer Dance Association.

In 1993 the prince was appointed Cambodian delegate to UNESCO, the UN cultural body based in Paris, where he became known for his hard work and his devotion to Cambodia.

"He has always been a voice for using culture as an entre to a variety of issues, not only development but also political reconciliation issues," said Richard Englehardt, UNESCO's regional advisor in Southeast Asia and former head of the Cambodian program. "I think it's probably an extremely wise and good sign for Cambodia."

Prince Sihamoni is the only surviving son of the King's fifth and current wife, Queen Monieath. His only full-brother died of a heart attack last year in Paris. Sihamoni remains a bachelor and has no children.