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Sihanouk: Cambodia’s last true king

  • A mourner carries a portrait of the late former Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk in Phnom Penh, Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013. Sihanouk's body had been lying in state at the Royal Palace after being flown from Beijing where he died Oct. 15 of a heart attack at the age of 89. The cremation, the climax of seven days of mourning, will take place Monday.(AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

    A mourner carries a portrait of the late former Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk in Phnom Penh, Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013. Sihanouk's body had been lying in state at the Royal Palace after being flown from Beijing where he died Oct. 15 of a heart attack at the age of 89. The cremation, the climax of seven days of mourning, will take place Monday.(AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

  • Thousands of mourners gather at the Royal Palace and wait in line to pay their respects to the late former Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk in Phnom Penh, Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013. Sihanouk's body had been lying in state at the Royal Palace after being flown from Beijing where he died Oct. 15 of a heart attack at the age of 89. The cremation, the climax of seven days of mourning, will take place Monday.(AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

    Thousands of mourners gather at the Royal Palace and wait in line to pay their respects to the late former Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk in Phnom Penh, Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013. Sihanouk's body had been lying in state at the Royal Palace after being flown from Beijing where he died Oct. 15 of a heart attack at the age of 89. The cremation, the climax of seven days of mourning, will take place Monday.(AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

  • A man tosses flowers at the Royal Palace offered to the late former Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk in Phnom Penh, Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013. Sihanouk's body had been lying in state at the Royal Palace after being flown from Beijing where he died Oct. 15 of a heart attack at the age of 89. The cremation, the climax of seven days of mourning, will take place Monday.(AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

    A man tosses flowers at the Royal Palace offered to the late former Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk in Phnom Penh, Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013. Sihanouk's body had been lying in state at the Royal Palace after being flown from Beijing where he died Oct. 15 of a heart attack at the age of 89. The cremation, the climax of seven days of mourning, will take place Monday.(AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

  • Hundreds of Buddhist nuns wait in line at the Royal Palace to pay their respects to the late former Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk in Phnom Penh, Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013. Sihanouk's body had been lying in state at the Royal Palace after being flown from Beijing where he died Oct. 15 of a heart attack at the age of 89. The cremation, the climax of seven days of mourning, will take place Monday.(AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

    Hundreds of Buddhist nuns wait in line at the Royal Palace to pay their respects to the late former Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk in Phnom Penh, Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013. Sihanouk's body had been lying in state at the Royal Palace after being flown from Beijing where he died Oct. 15 of a heart attack at the age of 89. The cremation, the climax of seven days of mourning, will take place Monday.(AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

  • Mourners rest in a field in front of the Royal Palace where they body of the late former Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk rests in Phnom Penh, Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013. Sihanouk's body had been lying in state at the Royal Palace after being flown from Beijing where he died Oct. 15 of a heart attack at the age of 89. The cremation, the climax of seven days of mourning, will take place Monday.(AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

    Mourners rest in a field in front of the Royal Palace where they body of the late former Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk rests in Phnom Penh, Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013. Sihanouk's body had been lying in state at the Royal Palace after being flown from Beijing where he died Oct. 15 of a heart attack at the age of 89. The cremation, the climax of seven days of mourning, will take place Monday.(AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

  • Buddhist monks wait in line at the Royal Palace to pay their respects to the late former Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk in Phnom Penh, Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013. Sihanouk's body had been lying in state at the Royal Palace after being flown from Beijing where he died Oct. 15 of a heart attack at the age of 89. The cremation, the climax of seven days of mourning, will take place Monday.(AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

    Buddhist monks wait in line at the Royal Palace to pay their respects to the late former Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk in Phnom Penh, Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013. Sihanouk's body had been lying in state at the Royal Palace after being flown from Beijing where he died Oct. 15 of a heart attack at the age of 89. The cremation, the climax of seven days of mourning, will take place Monday.(AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

  • Mourners read the daily paper on news of the funeral procession from the day before as they gather at the Royal Palace and wait in line to pay their respects to the late former Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk in Phnom Penh, Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013. Sihanouk's body had been lying in state at the Royal Palace after being flown from Beijing where he died Oct. 15 of a heart attack at the age of 89. The cremation, the climax of seven days of mourning, will take place Monday.(AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

    Mourners read the daily paper on news of the funeral procession from the day before as they gather at the Royal Palace and wait in line to pay their respects to the late former Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk in Phnom Penh, Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013. Sihanouk's body had been lying in state at the Royal Palace after being flown from Beijing where he died Oct. 15 of a heart attack at the age of 89. The cremation, the climax of seven days of mourning, will take place Monday.(AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

  • A mourner prays for the late former King Norodom Sihanouk beside the national flag in Phnom Penh Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013.  Sihanouk's body had been lying in state at the Royal Palace after being flown from Beijing where he died Oct. 15 of a heart attack at the age of 89. The cremation, the climax of seven days of mourning, will take place Monday. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

    A mourner prays for the late former King Norodom Sihanouk beside the national flag in Phnom Penh Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013. Sihanouk's body had been lying in state at the Royal Palace after being flown from Beijing where he died Oct. 15 of a heart attack at the age of 89. The cremation, the climax of seven days of mourning, will take place Monday. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

  • Thousands of mourners gather at the Royal Palace and wait in line to pay their respects to the late former Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk in Phnom Penh, Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013. Sihanouk's body had been lying in state at the Royal Palace after being flown from Beijing where he died Oct. 15 of a heart attack at the age of 89. The cremation, the climax of seven days of mourning, will take place Monday.(AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

    Thousands of mourners gather at the Royal Palace and wait in line to pay their respects to the late former Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk in Phnom Penh, Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013. Sihanouk's body had been lying in state at the Royal Palace after being flown from Beijing where he died Oct. 15 of a heart attack at the age of 89. The cremation, the climax of seven days of mourning, will take place Monday.(AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

  • Nuns make their way past the Royal Palace to pay their respects to the late former Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk in Phnom Penh, Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013. Sihanouk's body had been lying in state at the Royal Palace after being flown from Beijing where he died Oct. 15 of a heart attack at the age of 89. The cremation, the climax of seven days of mourning, will take place Monday.(AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

    Nuns make their way past the Royal Palace to pay their respects to the late former Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk in Phnom Penh, Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013. Sihanouk's body had been lying in state at the Royal Palace after being flown from Beijing where he died Oct. 15 of a heart attack at the age of 89. The cremation, the climax of seven days of mourning, will take place Monday.(AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

  • A mourner carries a portrait of the late former Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk in Phnom Penh, Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013. Sihanouk's body had been lying in state at the Royal Palace after being flown from Beijing where he died Oct. 15 of a heart attack at the age of 89. The cremation, the climax of seven days of mourning, will take place Monday.(AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

    A mourner carries a portrait of the late former Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk in Phnom Penh, Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013. Sihanouk's body had been lying in state at the Royal Palace after being flown from Beijing where he died Oct. 15 of a heart attack at the age of 89. The cremation, the climax of seven days of mourning, will take place Monday.(AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

  • A mourner carries a portrait of the late former Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk in Phnom Penh, Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013. Sihanouk's body had been lying in state at the Royal Palace after being flown from Beijing where he died Oct. 15 of a heart attack at the age of 89. The cremation, the climax of seven days of mourning, will take place Monday.(AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
  • Thousands of mourners gather at the Royal Palace and wait in line to pay their respects to the late former Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk in Phnom Penh, Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013. Sihanouk's body had been lying in state at the Royal Palace after being flown from Beijing where he died Oct. 15 of a heart attack at the age of 89. The cremation, the climax of seven days of mourning, will take place Monday.(AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
  • A man tosses flowers at the Royal Palace offered to the late former Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk in Phnom Penh, Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013. Sihanouk's body had been lying in state at the Royal Palace after being flown from Beijing where he died Oct. 15 of a heart attack at the age of 89. The cremation, the climax of seven days of mourning, will take place Monday.(AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
  • Hundreds of Buddhist nuns wait in line at the Royal Palace to pay their respects to the late former Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk in Phnom Penh, Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013. Sihanouk's body had been lying in state at the Royal Palace after being flown from Beijing where he died Oct. 15 of a heart attack at the age of 89. The cremation, the climax of seven days of mourning, will take place Monday.(AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
  • Mourners rest in a field in front of the Royal Palace where they body of the late former Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk rests in Phnom Penh, Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013. Sihanouk's body had been lying in state at the Royal Palace after being flown from Beijing where he died Oct. 15 of a heart attack at the age of 89. The cremation, the climax of seven days of mourning, will take place Monday.(AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
  • Buddhist monks wait in line at the Royal Palace to pay their respects to the late former Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk in Phnom Penh, Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013. Sihanouk's body had been lying in state at the Royal Palace after being flown from Beijing where he died Oct. 15 of a heart attack at the age of 89. The cremation, the climax of seven days of mourning, will take place Monday.(AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
  • Mourners read the daily paper on news of the funeral procession from the day before as they gather at the Royal Palace and wait in line to pay their respects to the late former Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk in Phnom Penh, Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013. Sihanouk's body had been lying in state at the Royal Palace after being flown from Beijing where he died Oct. 15 of a heart attack at the age of 89. The cremation, the climax of seven days of mourning, will take place Monday.(AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
  • A mourner prays for the late former King Norodom Sihanouk beside the national flag in Phnom Penh Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013.  Sihanouk's body had been lying in state at the Royal Palace after being flown from Beijing where he died Oct. 15 of a heart attack at the age of 89. The cremation, the climax of seven days of mourning, will take place Monday. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)
  • Thousands of mourners gather at the Royal Palace and wait in line to pay their respects to the late former Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk in Phnom Penh, Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013. Sihanouk's body had been lying in state at the Royal Palace after being flown from Beijing where he died Oct. 15 of a heart attack at the age of 89. The cremation, the climax of seven days of mourning, will take place Monday.(AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
  • Nuns make their way past the Royal Palace to pay their respects to the late former Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk in Phnom Penh, Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013. Sihanouk's body had been lying in state at the Royal Palace after being flown from Beijing where he died Oct. 15 of a heart attack at the age of 89. The cremation, the climax of seven days of mourning, will take place Monday.(AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
  • A mourner carries a portrait of the late former Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk in Phnom Penh, Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013. Sihanouk's body had been lying in state at the Royal Palace after being flown from Beijing where he died Oct. 15 of a heart attack at the age of 89. The cremation, the climax of seven days of mourning, will take place Monday.(AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

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 more than 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 tomorrow.

His son, 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 the 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.

“He would be much happier if he could go back to France,” says Son Soubert, the king’s high privy councilor – or to the Czech Republic. Sihamoni spent 25 years in the two countries, as a student in Prague and Cambodia’s ambassador to UNESCO in Paris.

He has described his time in what was then Czechoslovakia – “my second homeland” – as belonging to the “happiest part of my life” and still speaks Czech like a Prague native. Diplomats say that after dinner, usually taken alone, the 59-year-old bachelor loves to read Czech and French theater reviews and watch DVDs of ballets and operas.

“Grandiose, energetic and charismatic, Sihanouk was considered by many as the quintessential ‘God-King,’ a model which contrasts sharply with the quiet, reserved, and circumscribed stance of Sihamoni,” says Astrid Noren-Nilsson, a political scientist at Cambridge University. “Whilst Sihanouk was a natural-born, astute politician, Sihamoni does not aspire to any political role.”

By contrast, Hun Sen, in power for 28 years after defecting from the Khmer Rouge, says he won’t step down until he’s 90 and is grooming his three sons for bigger things, the eldest
already a two-star general who holds key military positions.

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