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King Norodom Sihanouk

King Norodom SihanoukKing Norodom Sihanouk died on October 15, 2012 at the age of 89 in Beijing, China of natural causes.

Norodom Sihanouk was the undisputed father of his country to most Cambodians. The Cambodian royal chronicles, dating from the middle of the fourteenth century, continued a tale of strife in which periods of triumph and conquest alternated with eras of defeat and vassalage. Although the connection between the Khmer kings of the chronicles and the ancient Khmer dynasties celebrated in legend has never been established, the people regarded Prince Norodom Sihanouk as the direct descendant of an ancient lineage in whose accomplishments they took great pride.

He was initially installed as King in 1941, following some sleight of hand by the French, who believed that the 19-year-old Sihanouk would prove a pliable figurehead for their Cambodian protectorate. Sihanouk was felt to be no problem on this score. He liked fast cars, fast horses, and girls, girls, girls. He admired French culture, and was studying humanities at a French-run school in Saigon. Moreover, Sihanouk's father was a Norodom and his mother a Sisowath; the crowning of Prince Sihanouk would reunite the two main royal lines in Cambodia [the other being Ang Duong].

It was during the 1940's that the press portrayed Sihanouk as the playboy King. Sihanouk, who did not marry until 1942, is believed to have fathered over a dozen children by various mistresees; the royal tradition of concubinage was such that all were recognized as princes and princesses of the Cambodian court. According to Royal Arks genealogy of the Cambodian royal family, however, Sihanouk has been married seven times. His first wife was Neak Moneang Phat Kanhol (1920-1969) whom he married 1942 in and later divorced. They had two children of whom the second was HRH Samdech Preah Krom Norodom Ranariddh (born in 1944). His seventh marriage was to HM Queen Norodom Monineath Sihanouk (ne Paule Monique Izzi), by whom he had two children, including HM King Norodom Sihamoni (born in 1953).

Because Sihanouk had not been regarded as a candidate for the throne, his education had been casual, and nothing in his early years as King had suggested that he would make any mark on the Southeast Asian political scene. He was widely regarded by foreigners as a French stooge, and the French themselves were slow to disabuse themselves. Western newsmen generally played up his saxophone playing, his penchant for sports, and the harem-like atmosphere of the Cambodian court.

To the bulk of Cambodia's five million inhabitants, not only was he the embodiment of Cambodian nationalism, but as head of the Buddhist religion in Cambodia he was a spiritual leader as well. Sihanouk was not one to ignore the sources of his political strength. Royal audiences were held in which any subject could express a grievance to the King. He was a virtual prisoner of the Japanese during World War II, but was not himselje molested. In the general surge of nationalism following World War II, however, Sihanouk became active in urging independence for Cambodia, contending to the French that only complete independence would undercut the appeal of Communism to his countrymen.

The importance given the King in the first Constitution after Independence derived from the history of the country, ,the oldest organized state of the Indochinese Peninsula. Its monarchs had an almost unbroken succession from the beginning of the Christian era to the crowning of King Sihianouk, and many ancient political concepts and practices persisted after Independence.

The early belief in the divine nature of the King was reflected in the reverence toward the royal family exhibited by most of the people. The early kings were worshiped as divine beings and, as such, were subject to no formal restrictions on their powers. Advising the King were the Royal Family Council, highranking monks and the court astrologer. These advisers, particularly the astrologer, often had a profound influence on the King's decisions, but all lawmaking and executive powers were actually in his hands.

Through the French-Cambodian Protectorate Treaty of 1863 and the subsequent Franco-Cambodian Convention of 1884, the French resident general acquired most of the lawmaking and administrative prerogatives of the King. No royal command could become law without the countersignature of the resident general who, as president of the Royal Council of Ministers, carried out the executive operations of government.

The King's powers were, in effect, limited to his spiritual role as head of all Buddhist religious activities and to the exercise of his traditional right of granting pardons. This right, however, was applied only to those who had committed offenses against Cambodian law and had been sentenced by a Cambodian court. The King's importance in the rel1gious field remained undiminished throughout the entire colonial period and kept alive the allegiance of the people.

The Buddhist hierarchy in Cambodia was independently organized in accordance with regulations formulated in 1943 and later modified in 1948. The Chief of State is the head of the Buddhist clergy. He appointed the superiors (sangneayuk), the functioning heads of the monastic orders, and the monks who had been nominated to the highest ranks of the hierarchy.

The king traditionally represented a divine authority who could not be approached or questioned. By his abdication Prince Sihanouk introduced a new concept of leadership. He was not viewed as a divine authority; however, the great majority of the people greatly revered him as their religious leader. Older people clamored to touch him when he visits a village, in the belief that some of the religious merit he holds in his person will be transferred to them.

The Royal Ballet was an important tourist attraction, but it created little local interest except in palace circles. From a historical point of view, however, it was of importance as it provides the only link between modern Cambodia and the magnificence of the ancient Khmer empire. The dancers wearing masks or white makeup and dressed in elaborate costumes, executed diffcult but stylized steps, which are repeated in varying sequences for the different dramas. The costumes and crowns used by the Cambodian palace dancers showed an unmistakable Thai influence, but there was one notable exception. Every item of jewelry worn by the dancers was authentic. The bracelets and anklets were gold studded with precious stones, and the crowns for male roles were of beaten gold.

Moreover, it performed sacred dances for special occasions. In July 1967, in response to a request from farmers who were concerned about the persistent lack of rain in certain provinces, Prince Sihanouk and the Queen had two sacred dances performed in the palace throne room by members of the Royal Ballet. In a ceremony before the dance, Prince Sihanouk lighted the sacred candle. and placed a crown of jasmine on the throne. At the foot of the throne was a table on which were placed offerings to the supernatural powers and the ghosts of departed sovereigns. These consisted of water, rice, areca nuts, betel nuts, fruits, meats and desserts. The dances were called buong suong Tevoda and were performed in an attempt to solicit assistance from supernatural powers in bringing the much-needed rain.

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