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King Faces Test of Political Power: Analysts

King Norodom Sihamoni is facing the greatest challenge of his rule so far and should work to create a compromise between rival politicians, as a ceremony to begin the new government approaches, independent political analysts say.

King Sihamoni is facing pressure from the Sam Rainsy and Human Rights parties, who want to boycott a Sept. 24 swearing-in ceremony, as well as exiled Prince Norodom Ranariddh, who is seeking a royal pardon so that he may return to Cambodia without serving an 18-month prison sentence.

The political pressure on King Sihamoni is the heaviest since he was crowned just four years ago, following the abdication of his father, Norodom Sihanouk, who was famous for his mercurial statecraft and an ability to reconcile parties.

Under these two kings alone, Cambodia has seen colonialism, independence, a coup, a republic, a communist takeover, a Vietnamese occupation and finally a democratic constitutional monarchy.

Lao Monghay, a senior researcher for the Asian Human Rights Committee, said King Sihamoni should first try to get all parties at the same swearing-in ceremony, in order to save Cambodia’s national image.

“It may be hard, but it is also a chance for His Majesty to try,” Lao Monghay said. “A success would increase his influence and image. His Majesty should test the waters, calling them one by one, to see if he can mediate when these political parties cannot find a compromise.”

Meanwhile, parties should also work to save the national image while the king is working on reconciliation, Lao Monghay said.

The king has less power than he has been afforded the constitution, he added.

Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Son Chhay agreed that a compromise over the swearing-in ceremony must take place, or the king may not join.

“In 2003, we saw the king father [Sihanouk] didn’t go when he foresaw that some lawmakers wouldn’t make the first day of the meeting,” Son Chhay said.

Human Rights Party President Kem Sokha said without more compromise his party will continue its boycott.

“We want His Majesty to exercise his powers as stated in the constitution,” Kem Sokha said, including to provide stability and mediate.

Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said there was little danger of anyone losing face except lawmakers who boycotted the ceremony and sought to come into the government through the back door.

Lawmakers elected in July have a duty to join the ceremony and subsequent first meeting of the National Assembly, and not use the occasion to pressure the ruling party, he said.

The Cambodian People’s Party has said that even as the opposition threatened a boycott they asked for positions in the National Assembly.

“They deny the election results but they take seats,” Prime Minister Hun Sen said in a speech last week. “They didn’t take only Assembly seats. Let me tell you”—and he whispered into the microphone—“they requested a deputy of National Assembly position and four committees.

“They sent the request to me after 3 pm and said they would go abroad at 7:30 pm,” he said. “Do you know what they said? They said if Samdech agrees, they won’t need to go abroad. Wow. Threatening Hun Sen with their trips abroad. So I responded by telling them, ‘Go for your plan.’”

Chea Vannath, founder of the Center for Social Development, said there should be a compromise from the king, but first there must be a green light from the winning parties, including the CPP.

“His Majesty could broker a compromise that only all parties share, especially the CPP,” she said. “His Majesty would lose his image if he makes a proposal and they deny it.”

Oum Daravuth, the personal advisor to King Sihamoni, said the king has never been in the political arena and lacks the political experience of his father, who served as a prime minister and reined as a monarch twice.

“His Majesty is a constitutional monarch, so he can’t do anything other than follow the constitution and law,” Oum Daravuth said. “The political crisis in 2003 was solved by the king father, before His Majesty took over. This is the first crisis for him, so it’s kind of hard for him.”