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Last Updated: Thursday, 14 October, 2004, 10:43 GMT 11:43 UK
Profile: King Sihamoni
Norodom Sihamoni
Norodom Sihamoni has shunned Cambodian politics until now
Few people had heard of Norodom Sihamoni before Cambodia's former king, Sihanouk, announced his abdication in early October.

But within days of the announcement, the 51-year-old ex-ballet dancer was thrust into the limelight as the most likely candidate to become the impoverished nation's next king.

The modest, music-loving bachelor was initially reluctant to take the throne, but said he was willing to do so if asked by Cambodia's official Throne Council.

Although he has represented his country as ambassador to the United Nations cultural organisation, Unesco, he has so far played no part in Cambodia's often chaotic politics.

But his distance from political wrangling led him to be seen by both Sihanouk and Prime Minister Hun Sen as the most suitable candidate to succeed to the throne, a position which in recent years has become largely symbolic.

Professional dancer

King Sihamoni was born in 1953, the year Cambodia finally achieved independence from France.

The eldest son of former King Sihanouk and his sixth wife Monique, his name is derived from the first syllables of his parents' names.

As a young man, King Sihamoni left Cambodia to study in Czechoslovakia - first at Prague High School and then specialising in music and dance at the National Conservatory.

In 1975 he went to North Korea to study cinematography - an interest he shares with his father.

But he returned to Cambodia soon after the ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge took over the country.

Some analysts allege he was duped into leaving North Korea when he received a letter falsely bearing his father's signature.

King Sihanouk
Norodom Sihanouk has been in power for more than half a century
During the Khmer Rouge's four-year genocidal regime, which resulted in the deaths of more than a million people, King Sihamoni - along with most of his family - was kept under house arrest in the palace in Phnom Penh.

Even Cambodia's royal household was not spared tragedy at the hands of Pol Pot's brutal henchmen. Five of Sihanouk's 14 children died in the genocide.

Shortly after the Khmer Rouge fell to Vietnamese forces in 1979, King Sihamoni left Cambodia for France, where he pursued his love of classical dance at some of the leading conservatories in Paris.

In 1992 he was given the position of Cambodia's ambassador to Unesco, a post he held until earlier this year, when he moved to Beijing to look after his ailing father.

Succession decision

The first indication that King Sihamoni might succeed to the throne came at an Independence Day ceremony in 2002, when he deputised for the king.

His presence came as a surprise to government officials and diplomats at the event, who saw it as a sign that Sihanouk was introducing his preferred candidate.

King Sihamoni is so far seen as relatively pliant, which will suit Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has dominated Cambodian politics for the past two decades.

Hun Sen has no wish to continue the frosty relationship he had with Sihanouk, whom he is said to dislike for his interference in political affairs.

But if politicians think King Sihamoni will merely go along with everything the government wishes, they could well be in for a shock.

"He's very much an unknown quantity, but he's certainly no fool," said one Western diplomat who met King Sihamoni when he was Cambodia's ambassador to Unesco.

"There might be some surprises if people think of him as a soft touch," the diplomat told Reuters.

Only time will tell whether King Sihamoni will agree to the figurehead role laid out for him, or whether he will wish to play a more pivotal role in shaping his country's future.

Cambodia clears succession hurdle
11 Oct 04  |  Asia-Pacific
Cambodia king confirms abdication
10 Oct 04  |  Asia-Pacific
Cambodia passes succession law
08 Oct 04  |  Asia-Pacific
Cambodia's succession riddle
08 Oct 04  |  Asia-Pacific
Profile: King Norodom Sihanouk
07 Oct 04  |  Asia-Pacific
A new king for Cambodia: Your views
14 Oct 04  |  Have Your Say

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