UN chief congratulates Cambodia's new king

The UN chief congratulated Cambodia’s incoming king today, a day after the former ballet dancer was chosen to succeed his ailing father to secure the country’s ancient monarchy for another generation.

The UN chief congratulated Cambodia’s incoming king today, a day after the former ballet dancer was chosen to succeed his ailing father to secure the country’s ancient monarchy for another generation.

Prince Norodom Sihamoni, who has spent much of his life abroad, was named king yesterday and will ascend to the throne later this month for a largely ceremonial role that brings a measure of stability to the war-ravaged and impoverished country of 13 million people.

A coronation, expected by the end of the month, will complete a royal succession triggered by King Norodom Sihanouk’s surprise abdication last week for health reasons.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan joined leaders from France and China – key players in Cambodia’s modern history – in congratulating Sihamoni on his unanimous election by a Throne Council of the country’s top political and religious leaders.

Annan offered Sihamoni “sincere congratulations and best wishes” while paying tribute to the outgoing Sihanouk “for the outstanding public service he has rendered to his country”, a UN spokeswoman said in New York.

The United Nations helped bring an end to civil war in Cambodia in the early 1990s, staging what was its biggest peacekeeping operation up to that time. The mission supervised the country’s first democratic elections in decades in 1993.

Chinese President Hu Jintao said that “under the leadership of Sihamoni, the Cambodian people will surely make new achievements in national construction”.

A French Foreign Ministry statement said France warmly assured the new king of its support in efforts to “reinforce national unity and the economic and social development of the country”.

Sihanouk, 81, and Prime Minister Hun Sen had both warned failure to choose a new king by yesterday could have threatened the continuation of the monarchy and the stability of the country.

Sihamoni, 51, was with his father in Beijing, where Sihanouk has been receiving medical treatment. His ailments over the past decade have included colon cancer, diabetes and two strokes.

They were expected to return to Cambodia next Wednesday, and a coronation ceremony was planned for October 29, said Sihamoni’s half-brother Prince Norodom Ranariddh, a much better-known son of Sihanouk who also is head of the National Assembly.

Sihamoni’s selection as king fulfils the wishes of his father and the political elite, though the prince had previously expressed no interest in becoming king. Sihanouk has made clear it was his son’s royal duty to accept the crown if offered.

“With Sihamoni in place the monarchy is preserved, but only as a shadow of what it once was in the 1950s and 60s,” said Milton Osborne, one of Sihanouk’s biographers.

Sihamoni, who never married, has long been considered the choice of his mother, Queen Monineath.

Born in 1953, Sihamoni went to school in Prague, Czechoslovakia, at the age of nine, graduating in 1975 from the Academy of Musical Art. Later, he studied film-making in North Korea, according to his official biography.

From early 1976 until January 1978, he was a prisoner of the Khmer Rouge, the regime held responsible for the deaths of 1.7 million Cambodians.

Sihanouk had been ousted as Cambodia’s supreme political leader in 1970, and then allied himself with the Khmer Rouge against his usurpers.

After the Khmer Rouge won a civil war in 1975, Sihanouk and royal family members flew home, only to be detained at the royal palace.

After a Vietnamese invasion drove the Khmer Rouge from power in early 1979, Sihamoni spent the next two years as secretary to his father in Beijing.

As Sihanouk rallied a coalition of guerrilla groups to oust the Vietnamese-installed government, Sihamoni went to Paris, where many Cambodian refugees had settled. He taught and performed ballet and classical Khmer dance.

In 1992, he briefly served as Cambodia’s envoy at the United Nations after Sihanouk’s guerrillas reached a peace agreement with the government in Phnom Penh. The accord led to elections and Sihanouk’s restoration as king in 1993.

From then until this year, Sihamoni served as ambassador to Unesco, promoting Cambodian culture while working on the issue of stolen artefacts.

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