PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — When the flames at the cremation ground are quenched and Cambodia’s former monarch Norodom Sihanouk’s ashes scattered on Phnom Penh’s riverfront, the mighty Mekong River may well carry away the country’s last true king, a towering figure in a procession of more than 100 monarchs stretching back 2,000 years.
Today, Cambodia has a new king, but he holds little of the power that Sihanouk once wielded. Instead, a poor farmer’s son and onetime communist commander, strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen, now occupies the dominant position that Sihanouk represented for years.
For over half a century Sihanouk bestrode this Southeast Asian country like a colossus, wresting independence from France, keeping the opposing Cold War powers at bay while maneuvering adroitly — at times brutally — through domestic minefields.
A larger-than-life character, Sihanouk survived wars and the Khmer Rouge reign of terror before succumbing to a heart attack last October at the age of 89. The King-Father, as he is called, will be cremated Monday.
His son, current King Norodom Sihamoni, a gentle man and former ballet dancer, by most accounts ascended the throne reluctantly and does not appear to have inherited any of the father’s political skills needed in Cambodia’s winner-take-all arena.
Bent on monopolizing power, Hun Sen’s regime has not afforded Sihamoni powers guaranteed to the monarchy by the constitution and even restricts the king’s movements outside palace walls, according to royalists and political opponents.
Sihamoni’s shrinking role and personality, together with the erosion of traditional society, does not bode well for monarchy’s long-term future.
“I think the survival of the monarchy after Sihamoni drops off the mortal coil is, at best, a 50-50 bet,” says Milton Osborne, an Australian historian and author of a Sihanouk biography.