Happy Anniversary, King Sihamoni

View from the coronation ceremony for Cambodian King Sihamoni in 2004.This week, the Cambodian people celebrate King Sihamoni’s 10th year on the throne. Ten years! I can’t believe so much time has passed. Here, I share a story I wrote (included in This Way More Better) about Sihamoni’s coronation. It’s not really about food. It’s about the character of a country.

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It’s the tail end of October 2004, and much of the world is tuned to the election drama of George Bush and John Kerry. But politics elsewhere take no inter-mission, and Cambodia enthrones a dancer. Norodom Sihamoni is named the country’s first new king in half a century, thus beginning a fresh chapter in the country’s saga of trouble.

A coronation is on tap, and we’re invited. Or, more accurately: we’re allowed to attend.

The 51-year-old bald-headed, ballet-dancing bachelor, the son of former king Norodom Sihanouk, returns home to Phnom Penh aer years in Paris, where he held a permanent slot as ambassador to UNESCO.

Though friends and relatives say this man lived a modest lifestyle in the French capital, his ohe Sixteenth Arrondissement lies an eternity from the squalor that engulfs his homeland. He may have chosen to ride the Metro to work like ordinary Parisians, but his new posting returns him to a palace set among millions of the world’s poorest people. It’s the same palace where the Khmer Rouge imprisoned him and his family, killinve of his siblings during their brutal regimeat was the horror from which hd, eventually alighting in Paris.

Sihamoni’s father, Sihanouk, abdicates the throne on the eve of his eighty-second birthday, citing ill healtone Council is hastily assembled and Sihamoni is quickly chosen as successor. Many describe the whole air as a Sihanouk dance to secure an heir while he still can. Rumor says that Prime Minister Hun Sen would like nothing better than to end the monarchy, a group with whom he has never gotten along.

Sihamoni, the faithful son, comes home as requested, accepting his new role with trembling hands but perfect poise. He vows to “never live apart from the beloved people.”

But the new king inherits a country in shambles. Cambodia’s millions are among Asia’s poorest, averaging less than a dollar a day in income. They have the region’s highest HIV-infection rate, and almost none of the basics of a democratic society—law and order, education, infrastructure. Street mobs punish alleged criminals when the cops and courts do not. Corruption is notorious and bribes are expected. Government slots are bought in cash and traded for power. Millions of dollars in international aid have disappeared through the years. And the United Nations calls the country a potential terrorism breeding ground. Beyond all that, the Khmer Rouge left a nation scarred, both physically and mentally. Cambodia has about twenty psychiatrists, but millions in need.

Indeed, presiding over the Kingdom of Cambodia may very well prove to be Sihamoni’s toughest dance. Perhaps that’s why the new monarch’s hands shake ever so slightly and the vein above his right temple bulges visibly as he makes his vows. “As from this happy and solemn day I shall devote my body and soul to the service of the people and the nation, pursuing the exceptional work accomplished by my august father.” at man was one of the twentieth century’s longest-lasting political players, outliving most all his friends and foes—among them, Charles de Gaulle, Kim Il Sung, JFK, LBJ, Nixon, Lon Nol, Pol Pot, Chairman Mao, Ho Chi Minh, and Deng Xiaoping. Though the Cambodian Constitution stipulates the king “shall reign but shall not govern,” few would deny the monarchy’s hand in political affairs.

The French enthroned Sihanouk in 1941, thinking him a malleable player. No such luck. The young king wrested independence from France, then abdicated for a life of politics. He somersaulted through years of turmoil and political alliances. Sihanouk named, outlawed, and eventually sided with the Khmer Rouge, when the Vietnam War spilled into Cambodia. That alliance ended aer the Khmer Rouge took control, imprisoned the royal family, killed several of Sihanouk’s children, and instigated a genocide than estimated 1.7 million Cambodians dead.

When the Vietnamese ousted the Khmer Rouge from power in 1979, Sihanouk created a government in exile and again allied with the Khmer Rouge to fight against the Vietnamese-backed government and its star, current Prime Minister Hun Sen. Peace accords were signed in 1991, though the Khmer Rouge civil war continued. Enter thawed election, Sihanouk’s rethroning in 1993, the eventual collapse of the Khmer Rouge from within, and a decade of brilliantly corrupt politics.

Cambodians often call Sihanouk their beloved ruler, a father whose beatific portrait still adorns homes and offices. Yet others are not so enamored of the man. The most outspoken will say they blame the former king for Cambodia’s long-term troubles. In the past decade, Sihanouk has spent more time in Beijing and Pyongyang than in Phnom Penh’s Royal Palace: people know he’s gone because the palace lights are snuffed when the king is away. He has departed for medical care, political protest, and “self-imposed exile,” frequently criticizing his country’s government, still run by Hun Sen. To some, the king’s absence is abandonment. They would rather he stayed and fought the bully government for his people. Instead, he left the people to wrestle their demons alone.

This is a country that accords its king divine status. While Cambodians hate to insult their heritage, the most vocal ask: Would a godking allow such excruciating poverty and institutional corruption? Would he permit the continued rule of a prime minister largely viewed as an ogre, one who cares more for his Vietnamese friends than for his own people? Would not a godking intervene?

These are the questions Cambodians quietly ask about their new King Sihamoni. In reality, they know little about this man who has spent so much time abroad—attending high school in Prague, studying cinematography in North Korea, and practicing choreography in Paris. Some think Sihamoni more foreign than Khmer. Local chatter wonders why the new monarch has neither wife at his side nor hair on his head (this fashion of Paris is a sign of mourning among Buddhists). Some hope he’s a good Buddhist, “married to the people.” His vows to stick to home are a grand and welcome divergence from his father’s style. But most Cambodians, a patient lot, will wait and see whether Sihamoni is up to the task of dancing through the Cambodian mud. It’s hard to dance in the mud.

“It has only been a few days. It is too early,” says a Phnom Penh moto-taxi driver named Thierry. Cambodia’s current government resembles Communism, he says, “but I am a democrat.” He wants to know whether the new king will uphold his political ideals.

“If he is good, he muss country’s problems,” says a restaurateur on the Phnom Penh riverfront, who believes the true kings were Suryavarman, Jayavarman, and their fellow architects of the Angkor empire a thousand years ago. Everyone else has let him down. The restaurateur thinks Sihanouk should have stopped the political impasse that left Cambodia without a functional government for nearly a year after the July 2003 election. In the end, a coalition was formed between Hun Sen’s party and the opposition. Hun Sen secured five more years at the helm, and the people’s outlook reached another low. “Cambodian democracy is not real,” the restaurateur tells me, explaining that loudmouthed Cambodians who oppose the status quo ultimately face three options: exile, arrest, or death. “I do not like to speak against my king,” he says, but he wonders whether Sihamoni can—or will—stand against such systematic wrongs.

View from the coronation ceremony for Cambodian King Sihamoni in 2004.*****

Yet none of that skepticism is apparent when Sihamoni visits Kompong Speu province, the first of his promised meetings in the countryside, just four days after his coronation. There, he navigates a dusty courtyard, greeting thousands of Cambodians who left home and school and farm to see him. It takes the king more than half an hour to reach his podium, so many hands does he shake and babies does he cuddle. He wears a simple gray suit, bowing and smiling, blessing the aged and disabled.

It’s a journey up the aisle, followed by a short speech, strikingly similar to hundreds Sihanouk made before him. Sihamoni acts as expected—which is precisely why many Cambodians wonder whether he will, in years to comet across the royal stage and into the wings of another country, a mere shadow of his father.

View from the coronation ceremony for Cambodian King Sihamoni in 2004.*****

In those last days of October, Phnom Penh prepares for an event that hasn’t happened in fifty years. Red carpets are unfurled, the palace is painted, and a royal crown and sword are ordered, to replace those lost during Pol Pot’s time. The Cambodian flag flutters through a typically tropical breeze. And Sihamoni’s portrait is raised—in some cases, alone; in others, right beside his aged father’s.

The three-day gala begins with official and religious rites—lots of candles and incense and prayers by the country’s top monks. Sihamoni’s parents bathe him with holy water from the mountains near Angkor, in a ceremony invoking the divine spirits of ancient kings for their latest incarnation. He ascends the throne to the sounds of traditional Khmer music and the blowing of conch shells, following a parade of Brahmin priests carrying all manner of traditional, ceremonial offerings—a horsetail whip, a house cat, fresh vegetables, and Buddha statues. After accepting his duties before an audience of dignitaries, monks, and journalists, Sihamoni signs the pardons of eighty-eight prisoners. Then he carefully removes his spectacles and bows to a bevy of cameramen, mouthing: “Merci beaucoup. Thank you.”

That night, as on every night of the coronation ceremonies, masses of people swarm the Phnom Penh riverfront, picnicking and gathering to see the palace aglow. Fireworks crackle in the night sky, causing several Cambodians to jump from the memory of ear-cracking booms that, in recent times, meant disturbance and death.

On the last day of coronation festivities, Sihamoni appears solemn while praying in the palace’s Silver Pagoda, so named for its floor of five thousand silver tiles. It’s a small, austere ceremony. The king wears loafers and his guards dress in silk suits with fraying gold threads. A couple of bodyguards tsk-tsk a neglected flowerbed, and the scent of a leaky sewer hose tinges the air. But the new monarch smiles a lot and leaves the impression of a very nice and gentle man.

After prayers, the king pays homage to his ancestors’ stupas on the palace grounds, carefully laying jasmine wreaths on each tastefully carved memorial. Then he kneels and prays some more, clasping a matchbox, lighting candles to the monarchs who came before him and stuffing incense sticks into silver chalices. Palm trees rustle in the background and swarms of pigeons flap overhead.

Sihamoni exits the palace gate to a waiting convertible and thousands of soldiers, police officers, and schoolchildren who dutifully wave flags and posters in his honor. After a short public ride in the Mercedes, he gives hist speech to the nation while standing beneath a golden parasol.

When he finishes, the throngs quickly clear and dozens of scavengers comb the littered square between the Royal Palace and Tonle Sap River. One boy stuffs a squashed loaf of bread into his mouth. Others collect the sticks tacked to the backs of Sihamoni posters; they will use the wood for cooking fires.

A ten-year-old boy named Peak Kaday collects recyclable plastic water bottles, filling a rice sack as tall as his body. He could earn 1,000 riel, about 25 cents, for that sack. But it costs that same amount for a motorbike-taxi home, so he begs for more money. When I ask what he thinks of his new king, Peak Kaday gazes across the lawn to a giant portrait of Sihamoni’s bald head, hanging from the palace. “He’s French,” the boy says, before hoisting his bag and trundling on.

That night, the square fills again with Phnom Penh residents who were not allowed to attend the king’s speech and accompanying ceremonies, but find his coronation an excuse to party anyway. In front of the palace, where each corner and every angle is lit with a hundred lightbulbs, women and kids clutch baskets atop their heads and bushels in their laps, filled with snacks for sale—banana fritters, fried spiders, steamed taro, roasted peanuts, handmade spring rolls, pickled mango. A swarm of humanity jams the riverfront for hours. For the next two nights, just north of the Royal Palace, music warbles through loudspeakers and floodlights illuminate a small stage in the park. And there, Cambodians dance a ballet for the love of their king.

But on the third night, everything changes. For quite some time, the street lights fail to turn on. The park is dark. And the palace returns to its familiar murk.

View from the coronation ceremony for Cambodian King Sihamoni in 2004.

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