Once and Future King of Cambodia

September 11, 1993

Prince Norodom Sihanouk was made king of the Cambodia protectorate by the French colonial masters in 1941. After he gave up the throne, converting independent Cambodia to a republic in 1955, he ruled as a prime minister. After he was ousted in 1970 in a coup arranged by ill-informed Americans, Cambodia went to hell and the prince went to Beijing. Now that there has been a remarkable election in May, in which 90 percent of surviving Cambodians voted, he is to be king again. They didn't decide that; he did.

The royalist party led by Sihanouk's son, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, came in first in the election. Sihanouk and Ranariddh may have some father-son rivalry problems. Ranariddh the monarchist and Hun Sen, installed as prime minister by Vietnamese Communist overlords who have since gone the way of the French, are the odd couple called upon by fate and the voters to run the government.

Their first job is to beat down the Khmer Rouge of Pol Pot, who boycotted the election and then demanded a place in the government and conquered all the land and people they could. The people despise and fear the Khmer Rouge, whom the government forces actually appear to be defeating, though we've heard that before.

Since the election victory of the Norodom party, Sihanouk has functioned as a figurehead of state, from outside the country. Ranariddh and Hun Sen have recently called on him at his vacation retreat in North Korea. Ranariddh and Hun Sen returned to Phnom Penh announcing that Sihanouk would be king again. Ranariddh was happier about this than Hun Sen.

Many foreign observers believe that Sihanouk alone has the charisma and credibility to hold Cambodia together while something approaching democratic legitimacy is established. Foreign observers don't get to vote. The Constituent Assembly is meeting to decide the monarchy question before Sihanouk arrives to take over whatever position awaits on Sept. 15, the date the assembly formally assumes power from the United Nations.

The U.N., meanwhile, has been sending its 22,000 troops home and proclaiming victory for its 18-month peace-keeping operation. This is the right thing to do, but a tad premature. Meanwhile, the government (more Hun Sen's than Ranariddh's) has been stealing U.N. vehicles for the coming struggle.

There certainly is a role as national symbol for Sihanouk to play. Things would be better if the Constituent Assembly got to decide freely what that role is. Too many people have died in Cambodia in the past 23 years for more anarchic power struggle to be an acceptable game.

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