Delicate dance for Cambodia king

Cambodia has crowned an unknown as ruler, taking the place of the beloved Sihanouk.

Halfway around the world from his native Cambodia, Prince Norodom Sihamoni lived for years out of a modest apartment in Paris, taking the Metro to work. Trained in ballet and choreography, the 51-year-old bachelor fit easily into the world's cultural capital, though he led a quiet, almost reclusive existence.

But last week, he turned his back on life as an ordinary Louis. On Friday, as a bevy of Buddhist monks blessed him, Sihamoni was crowned king of Cambodia and donned the royal golden sarong as his father placed responsibility for a struggling country's heart and soul into his hands.

If history is any judge, the new job for a reluctant king, largely unknown in his homeland, could be a heavy burden to shoulder.

Sihamoni's father, Norodom Sihanouk, weathered colonialism, one of the world's most brutal regimes, foreign occupation, communism, and a UN-hatched coalition government. He remained through it all a staunch defender of Cambodia's independence and territorial integrity.

The 81-year-old former monarch abdicated the throne earlier this month, forcing lawmakers to resolve the undecided issue of royal succession. By stepping down, Sihanouk preempted a potential power struggle and once again put his mark of stability on a country that has seen more than its fair share of violence and turbulent politics.

Under Cambodia's constitution, the king officially reigns as head of state but does not govern. But the former king never stayed far from politics, and the country's reputation for political corruption and crony capitalism suggest his son may have an active role to play as well.

Sihanouk was first declared king in 1941. He declared independence from France in 1953, and abdicated for the first time in 1955 to pursue politics.

As the US went to war with Vietnam, Sihanouk tried to keep his country neutral, at the same time attempting to keep Thailand and Vietnam from taking parts of the country. He was sacked from power in 1970 by a military leader, Lon Nol, who was backed by the US.

Sihanouk was forced to side with the Communists, who ended up later becoming the Khmer Rouge. During the Khmer Rouge period 1975 to 1979, Sihanouk was mostly under house arrest at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh by Khmer Rouge soldiers.

After Vietnam ousted the Khmer Rouge from Phnom Penh and occupied the country, Sihanouk formed a political party to help fight against the Vietnamese-backed government. When the Vietnamese left Cambodia, he was renamed king in 1993. Since then, he has been seen as the neutral force to stabilize a messy political scene and remained an outspoken critic of the government.

For King Sihamoni, following in his father's footsteps won't be easy, observers say. "It's very difficult to replace [Norodom Sihanouk] because he has a lot of experience. The people love him. Also the international community knows him," said analyst Kek Galabru. "Nobody can replace King Sihanouk."

King Sihamoni, trained as a ballet dancer in Prague in the 1970s and later studied film in North Korea, served as Cambodia's envoy to the UN's cultural organization, UNESCO, while in Paris. But among Cambodians, few could recognize the king's face before Cambodia's Royal Council of the Throne picked him to replace Sihanouk and portraits of him were installed throughout Phnom Penh.

"I don't know what he will do in the country because all I've heard is the new king is out of the country a lot. When he stays, then we can evaluate whether the new king is good or not," said Mat Theary, 14, high school student.

To help him navigate the ins and outs of being king, the father is staying put in the palace.

"I am afraid and concerned of not fulfilling the duty effectively because I lack experience," wrote Sihamoni in a statement dated Oct 15. "I never anticipated that I would have the fortune of staying on the throne as the monarch."

In his first address to the country Saturday, Sihamoni promised transparency in the royal palace and to honor Cambodians, just as his father did for more than 60 years.

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