Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen may have acquired from ex-king Norodom Sihanouk some shrewd political skills that have made him Southeast Asia’s longest serving leader today. But now that the charismatic ruler is dead, will the powerful Hun Sen deftly move to dismantle the monarchy to further shore up his position?
This question is obviously in the minds of Cambodians as they mourn the death of Sihanouk, who succumbed to a heart attack this week in his "second home" Beijing while undergoing treatment for cancer.
When he was on the throne, Sihanouk had often clashed with Hun Sen. Their relationship was a rocky one, especially after 1997 when the tough Hun Sen began dominating power in Cambodia and undercut Sihanouk's influence.
Though Sihanouk cited old age and health problems when he abdicated the throne—for the second and final time—in 2004 in favor of his son Norodom Sihamoni, many believe one of the reasons for his stepping down was his fear that Hun Sen would dismantle the monarchy if they continued to quarrel.
With Sihanouk out of the throne, the monarchy in Cambodia wielded no real power over the last eight years. But it remains a significant institution due to the reverence Cambodians give to the royal family, experts say.
The 59-year-old King Sihamoni, a one-time ballet dancer and cultural ambassador, is seen as completely apolitical and has given little problems to Hun Sen or his senior officials, raising expectations that the 60-year-old prime minister, who has said he will remain in power for another decade, will keep the monarch.
“There is no reason to expect that Hun Sen will act against the monarchy in its present form, despite his occasional highly critical comments on some members of the Cambodian royal family,” said Milton Osborne, a Southeast Asian expert at the Lowy Institute, an international policy think tank in Sydney, Australia.
“King Sihamoni has followed a strictly correct role as king without any hint of involvement in political issues. He is relatively young and in good health, and could remain on the throne for many years to come,” Osborne said in a blog post.
King Sihamoni is unmarried and has no children but this does not threaten the succession because Cambodia's constitution provides for an elective monarchy drawn from descendants of the 19th century monarch, King Ang Duang, said Osborne, who has written an unauthorized biography Sihanouk: Prince of Light, Prince of Darkness.
Even though hundreds of thousands of Cambodians lined the streets to pay respects to Sihanouk when his body was flown in Wednesday from Beijing, Osborne points out that the bulk of the population has no personal memory of the “golden” years of the mercurial ex-king and independence hero who helped steer Cambodia through five decades of war, genocide, and disorder.
This could change their perception of the monarchy, he said.
“I think there is a genuine adherence to the monarchy, particularly in the peasantry who see the king still as a very special figure, almost divine to some extent. But in fact the majority of Cambodians have grown up without a powerful monarch in the palace in Phnom Penh and I think that does change the way people look at the institution.”
Still, Hun Sen did not take any chances.
Knowing well that Sihanouk was revered at home, the prime minister wasted little time before displaying his affection to the late “King-Father” upon his death.
On learning that the monarch had died in the Chinese capital, Hun Sen immediately flew to Beijing with King Sihamoni to escort his body home.
Then, on returning to Phnom Penh with Sihanouk's body, Hun Sen accompanied the casket as it weaved through the streets of Phnom Penh on a golden float.
Hun Sen also made sure that Sihanouk received a lavish state funeral.
He declared a week of mourning and ordered that the charismatic leader’s body lie in state at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh for three months during which time the public can pay respects before it is cremated according to Buddhist ritual.
Some believe Hun Sen, who has been at the helm of Cambodian politics for more than three decades and whose administration is often accused of suppressing political freedoms and mistreatment of rights campaigners, will emerge even stronger after Sihanouk’s death.
“This is a new era for Hun Sen,” Lao Moung Hay, a former civil servant and professor of law and economics, told the New York Times. “There is no force to restrain him anymore—there are risks for the country.”
Prince Sisowath Thomico, King Sihanouk’s longtime private secretary and nephew, told the paper that some Cambodians were worried and afraid after Sihanouk’s death.
“He had such charisma,” the prince said. “And now there will be a kind of hiatus. The people of Cambodia will have to wait for the next person who will have that same moral authority.”
While Sihanouk may have been a consummate politician and had survived political maneuvering during the bloody Vietnam War and Pol Pot's murderous Khmer Rouge regime, he is being blamed by some quarters for the extensive powers that have been accumulated by Hun Sen today.
“Not noted in many [of Sihanouk’s] obituaries, however, is one important point,” said Joshua Kurlantzick, a Southeast Asian expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“At several times during his reign, Sihanouk made noises about opening Cambodia up to true multiparty democracy, but he never could really do so, preferring instead to keep all parties under the thumb of himself and the royalist establishment,” Kurlantzick said.
He acknowledged that at times, Sihanouk’s beneficent monarchical style proved effective—in the 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s, “he made many judicious and foresighted decisions for his country.”
“But though he is hardly the only one to blame for Cambodia’s current political state, his inability to ever move beyond his patrician, monarchical, and authoritarian style left a legacy of big man rule that Hun Sen, for years Sihanouk’s antagonist, has readily adopted."
“Today, in fact, the true heir of Sihanouk is not his son Sihamoni, who sits on a far less valuable throne, but rather Hun Sen, who controls Cambodia the way Sihanouk once did.”