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Confusion Reigns Following the Abdication of Cambodian King

By Seth Mydans

The New York Times -- Tired, frustrated and sick, King Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia said Thursday that he would give up the throne he has held, off and on, for more than half a century, throwing his nation into confusion and doubt.

In statements posted on his Web site, faxed to his inner circle and read on Cambodian television, the king, who is in Beijing, said, “I can no longer continue my mission and activities as king and head of state to serve the needs of the nation.”

The king, a constitutional monarch, has threatened to abdicate repeatedly over the years, and his son, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, who is speaker of the National Assembly, said, “We still hope that tomorrow or the day after tomorrow the king will agree to be the king again.”

But the prince said, “According to a royal message that we have received and read to the National Assembly, the king has abdicated.”

Sihanouk, 81, has repeatedly expressed anguish over the poverty and political turmoil that continue to torment what he recently called his “Kafkaesque kingdom.”

Although his power is almost entirely symbolic, he has been the soul of Cambodia since he was installed by its French colonial rulers in 1941 -- rising and falling through the Indochina war, the rule of the Khmer Rouge, a decade of civil war and a decade of uncivil peace. In recent months he has said he felt marginalized as Cambodian politicians struggled to form a government after an inconclusive election in July 2003.

Among his complaints is the failure to formalize a nine-member Throne Council which, under the constitution, should choose his successor within a week of his death or incapacity. The constitution does not mention abdication, adding to the uncertainty of the moment.

The council is dominated by supporters of Prime Minister Hun Sen, and a change in monarch would not affect the prime minister’s grip on power. Diplomats and other analysts said the king could be attempting to force the issue now to ensure the royal line survives and to secure his own influence in the choice of his successor.

The king has indicated a preference for Prince Norodom Sihamoni, 51, a dancer and diplomat who lives in Paris. The prince is one of the king’s two children by Queen Norodom Monineath, his fifth wife.

Sihanouk posted a recent letter on his Web site from Hun Sen and Ranariddh in support of Sihamoni as the next king. There has been talk in Cambodian political circles of a secret deal in which Hun Sen promised the monarchy to Ranariddh in return for his political support.

Since the National Assembly has yet to vote on the Throne Council’s rules, the council cannot begin deliberations on the succession, and it did not appear Thursday that the seven-day decision period had begun.