Author: Phoak Kung, University of Warwick
The death of King Norodom Sihanouk in October last year was a great loss to Cambodia. To the royal family, the King’s tremendous popularity is a double-edged sword. For many years, the monarchy has enjoyed overwhelming support and loyalty from the people without having to establish a new identity or produce any significant achievements. Now, King Sihanouk is gone, and no member of the royal family has anywhere near his stature.
The current King, Norodom Sihamoni, might not even be able to ensure the survival of the monarchy beyond his reign. There are problems he cannot control.
First, some prominent members of the royal family are actively involved in politics — at the expense of the monarchy’s reputation. They form political parties to compete for power and often use their royal connections to mobilise public support, as in the case of the Funcinpec Party. This diminishes respect for the monarchy. Politicians break promises, and the people distrust them for it. When people feel betrayed by royalist political parties, they can blame not only individual members of the royal family but the whole institution of the monarchy, including the King.
Second, some members of the Privy Council, which advises the King, want the new King to follow his father and exert control over government affairs. But they expect too much. King Sihamoni needs to establish his own identity as monarch. In any case, the King does not have the kind of power and privileges that his father enjoyed when he ruled the country in the 1950s and 1960s, and the constraints facing the monarchy are enormous. Worse still, when the King refuses to intervene, some Privy Councillors publicly complain that he lacks the courage to confront the government. It is time for the council to revise its strategy. Instead of picking fights with political parties, the King should focus on the ordinary people. The people, not political parties, will protect the monarchy.
Moreover, some provisions of the Cambodian Constitution make the future of the monarchy uncertain. There is no royal hierarchy in Cambodia; instead, political parties select the new king from a pool of candidates. The Constitution effectively allows the ruling party to choose its preferred candidate. The candidate must be from three royal bloodlines — the descendants of King Ang Duong, King Norodom and King Sisowath. This does not mean there is a large pool of potential candidates, however. And infighting between the three royal families further undermines the monarchy. The Constitution makes it almost impossible to know who will be first in line to the throne.
The decline or collapse of the monarchy is not good for anyone, including the ruling party. For over 20 years, Cambodian politics has been characterised by fierce and often violent competition between government and opposition. Political deadlock is constant. But Cambodia has muddled through, mainly because King Sihanouk — the ‘Father of National Reconciliation’ — helped mediate.
What will happen now he is gone? For example both the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) claimed victory in parliamentary elections in July 2013. In protest against the electoral result, the CNRP vowed to hold massive demonstrations nationwide, while the CPP deployed troops and heavily armoured vehicles into the capital city to prevent any possible clashes. A peaceful solution remains elusive. Both parties and the people still expect King Sihamoni to intervene. It is clear that the monarchy remains an integral part of Cambodia’s conflict resolution mechanism.
Cambodian politics has become a zero-sum game; the public, too, is politically divided. Conflict and stalemate will be the reality of Cambodian politics for years to come. It is almost impossible to assume that these problems can be sorted out smoothly and peacefully without the help of a strong, popular monarchy. Government institutions are not ready to arbitrate electoral conflicts independently.
The monarchy can help ensure stability, security and peace in Cambodia, but only if the King remains neutral. If he is seen to side with either the CPP or the CNRP, he will lose credibility and legitimacy in the public eyes. Both political parties must refrain from politicising the monarchy. It is possible to convince the people to accept a more passive and ceremonial monarchy as stipulated in the Constitution. Moreover, the King and members of the royal family must reach out to as many people as possible through both traditional media outlets and social media like Facebook and Twitter. The modern monarchy must be more engaging, adaptive and innovative if it wants to survive Cambodia’s tumultuous politics. The era of the God King is well and truly over.
Phoak Kung is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Politics and International Studies, the University of Warwick.