Holy water, prayers of peace for new Cambodian King

30 October 2004

PHNOM PENH: Cambodia's outgoing king, Norodom Sihanouk, anointed his son with holy water from Angkor Wat yesterday in a traditional Buddhist blessing ceremony to open a day of pageantry for the new monarch's coronation.

The octogenarian Sihanouk, one of the world's most enduring leaders who has said he is finally ready to retire, choreographed the dawn ritual with the consummate skill of one who has trodden the international stage for more than 60 years.

Despite the accession of Norodom Sihamoni, 51, a previously little known ballet aficionado who takes a formal oath of kingship in the afternoon, Sihanouk's influence in the war-scarred southeast Asian nation is unlikely to diminish.

Sihamoni, dressed in a gold-braided white jacket and blue and gold silk trousers, entered the ornate gilt throne room carried on a golden throne by eight bearers for the ceremony that will make him king.

A procession of hundreds of silk-clad courtiers wound through the palace grounds in front of the monarch-in-waiting, carrying bowls of incense, flowers and ivory tusks.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, in official regalia of a white suit with gold braid, and members of the National Assembly waited in the throne room for the elaborate swearing-in ceremony.

Sihamoni takes over from his mercurial father, who led his country to independence from France in 1953 and who has scotched reports he would be retiring to the provincial backwater of Siem Reap, in the shadow of the 800-year-old Angkor Wat temples, following his shock abdication.

"I think we will see the hand of Sihanouk on the tiller of the monarchy for some time to come - certainly until Sihamoni has found his feet," said one Western diplomat.

Flanked by saffron-robed Buddhist monks and black-suited North Korean bodyguards, Sihamoni, in traditional golden gown, began the daylong ceremonies with an early morning walk through the gardens of the Royal Palace where he and his father were once held captive by Pol Pot's Khmers Rouges.

He ascended a red carpet to a throne set beneath a gilded pagoda, before clasping his hands in Buddhist supplication and offering prayers to the sun rising slowly over the Mekong river.

Sihanouk, who flashed a broad grin to the banks of cameras present, then doused his shaven-headed son with nine jars of holy water brought specially from an Angkor spring.

Sihamoni is due to make his first television address to Cambodia's 13 million people in the evening, the first time most will have seen their new monarch, who has spent nearly all his adult life abroad.

AdvertisementAdvertisementAt the same time, monks at Buddhist temples across the land have been ordered to bang giant wooden drums to usher in the new royal era.

Having never held political office, Sihamoni faces the daunting task as constitutional monarch of mediating in Cambodia's fractious and often bloody politics, in which the legacy of the "Killing Fields" genocide still looms large.

His status as an almost complete outsider could be his most powerful tool.

"According to the constitution, the king must be politically neutral. He is the father of the nation, and not involved in politics," Sihamoni's half-brother and royalist party leader Prince Norodom Ranariddh told reporters.

"I am so excited to see that his attitude and character is subtle and gentle. He is so appropriate to be the king of Cambodia," said Ranariddh, a former co-prime minister who was deemed too political to be monarch.

Ordinary Cambodians, for whom life is a daily struggle against some of the most acute poverty in Asia, are also praying the new monarch does not try to rock the political boat, something that often precipitates bullets and bloodshed.

"He is a good man - no politics," said taxi driver Cham Ly.

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