One Year into Post-Sihanouk Cambodia

A portrait of Norodom Sihanouk is hoisted in front of the Royal Palace as a crowd of about 1,000 people gather ahead of the arrival of the King Father's body in October 2012. (Lauren Crothers/The Cambodia Daily)

A portrait of Norodom Sihanouk is hoisted in front of the Royal Palace as a crowd of about 1,000 people gather ahead of today’s arrival of the King Father’s body in October 2012. (Lauren Crothers/The Cambodia Daily)

October 15 this week marked the first anniversary of the death of Cambodia’s former King Norodom Sihanouk, who died last year in Beijing of heart attack at the age of 89. While the media has focused extensively on the subsequent royal funeral, and to a lesser extent the obituary and the legacy of the former monarch, there has been less focus on the immediate implication of his death to the current political culture of Cambodia. It appears that the death of the revered King less than one year before Cambodia’s general election – and thus the absence of a long-standing unifying figure around a critical political period – has helped created an environment for ‘forced’ political compromise in post-election crisis.

The death of this most influential Cambodian politician might have impacted the population and political parties in pre-election months in the following ways:

  • In the months leading up to the election, the royal funeral and mass mobilization of people to participate in the ceremony had been unseen in the country’s last decade. This mass mobilization both offline and online, followed by unprecedented student protests, help set the stage for a highly active election campaign just months later and particularly ensure the political coming of age of the post-war generation. This boost appeared to have favored the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) more than the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
  • For the opposition movement, the death also meant the end of any viable royalist contestants in the election, therefore centralizing the role of the Cambodian National Rescue Party as the sole opposition movement.
  • For the Mr. Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), the death of the revered King meant a short-term opportunity to capitalize on King Sihanouk’s popularity, particularly among young voters. Yet, despite his effort to closely associate himself with the revered monarch – even to the chagrin of some royals – and bridge Sihanouk’s legacy with his own by throwing a lavish royal funeral ceremony, Mr. Hun Sen failed to substantially garner youth votes.

The absence of the revered monarch as a unifying figure in times of political crisis – in the eyes of the ordinary Cambodians and politicians alike – seemed to help ensure a degree of stability before and after the election by restraining all actors’ potential moves. Sihanouk’s son, current King Norodom Sihamoni, has yet to play the imposing role his father did. Furthermore, as Cambodia is coming out of its longest period of peace in decades, unlike in past post-election periods, no political rival wants to be seen as the starter of violence. Thus, despite the opposition protests and growing tensions, there has been relatively low degree of the outright violence seen in past elections and both sides seem eager to start negotiations. While it is premature to view this as a degree of political maturing, the nation is entering rather unfamiliar territory.

The election results – while still disputed by the opposition CNRP – clearly shows the country politically split between the two parties, meaning a much reduced legitimacy for the ruling CPP and Mr. Hun Sen. Mr. Hun Sen’s attempts to build a personal cult based on the larger-than-live persona of King Sihanouk is therefore shaken and the CPP faces its greatest challenge yet to reform ahead of the next elections. On the whole, however, this means that Cambodia is entering a new era where political legitimacy is changing in the eyes of a changing populace, with decreasing focus on charisma or personality and more on party policies and delivery. In this new status quo, the ruling CPP and opposition CNRP parties alike will have to work harder on policy specifics to meet the rising expectations of the electorate ahead of the 2018 elections.

On the inauguration of the statue of the former King, there is again dispute over access to the royal ceremony – thus traditional legitimacy. Only time will tell if history will look back at the death of former King Sihanouk as the end of an era in Cambodia’s political history or merely a minor point in the era of Mr. Hun Sen.

A nice piece by the Phnom Penh Post on how the former King is remembered one year on.

Historians Look at Former King’s ‘Mixed’ Legacy

Thousands of mourners gather at the gates of the Royal Palace minutes after the coffin of former king Norodom Sihanouk arrived in Phnom Penh October 17, 2012. Tens of thousands poured into Cambodia's capital to witness the procession on Wednesday.

Thousands of mourners gather at the gates of the Royal Palace minutes after the coffin of former king Norodom Sihanouk arrived in Phnom Penh October 17, 2012. Tens of thousands poured into Cambodia’s capital to witness the procession on Wednesday.

Sophat Soeung, VOA Khmer & Victor Beattie, VOA News, October 17, 2012

WASHINGTON DC – Former king Norodom Sihanouk, who died in China on Monday, came to the throne at the age of 19. But he grew to become the most prominent national figure during decades of Cambodia’s turbulent politics.

Those who have closely watched his politics over the years say that the former king’s greatest legacy can be found in the early years of his rule and his continued role as a symbol of unity during troubled times. But they also point to some of his darker legacies, including his support for the Khmer Rouge at a critical turning point in Cambodian history.

Julio Jeldres, Sihanouk’s official biographer, told VOA the former king built modern Cambodia from what had been a feudal monarchy. But his most lasting legacy was the winning of independence for his country from colonial France in 1953.

“He is the symbol of Cambodian independence and unity,” Jeldres told VOA. “He managed to keep this country at peace, while the Vietnam War was raging next door.”

Sihanouk, who was nearly 90, died in Beijing early Monday after a heart attack. He had gradually retreated from public life after passing the throne to his son, Norodom Sihamoni, in 2004.

David Chandler, an author and prominent scholar of modern Cambodian history, said Sihanouk dominated, “or you might even say smothered,” Cambodia’s early political scene.

“He felt himself in some ways to be the embodiment of the country…that the spirit of Cambodia presided in him as king,” Chandler told VOA. “He felt he had a special endowment to represent the Cambodian people. He combined this with a deep and very sincere love of ordinary Cambodians, which is a characteristic you won’t find too frequently among the Cambodian rulers.”

Sihanouk will be ill remembered by some for his support of the Khmer Rouge insurgency, between his ouster by coup in 1970 and the regime’s overthrow of the Lon Nol government, in 1975.

“But he didn’t know what they were going to do when they came to power,” Chandler said. “And when they did come to power, they locked him up for three years, and their cruel and inhumane policies I think shocked him and upset him.”