Royalty check

October 24, 2012

I don’t imagine it will come as much of a surprise, if I say that I’m a pretty ardent republican. In fact, my loathing for the whole concept of inherited privilege and inherited political power has led me, often and loudly, to demand that the heads of the British royal family be arrayed on pikestaffs outside Buckingham Palace, while the streets fill with the gleefully dancing populace. Opinion polls, however, tell me I’m in a minority. Not for the first time.

Nonethess, I am constantly surprised by people’s thoughtless genuflection at the shrine of injustice that is a royal family. In much the same way as religions surprise me, in still managing to make people believe their nonsense.

I managed to miss Princess Diana’s funeral, but I hated it from a distance: the confluence of celebrity worship and mindless sheeple-ish sentiment creating a storm of cringe-worthy faux-emotion that makes my skin crawl to think of it.

But it has been undeniably interesting watching Cambodia’s response to the death of King-Father Norodom Sihanouk. I’m not really allowed to have an opinion on the worth of the royal family here (although I do). But people here are pretty caught up in the whole thing.

Some TV channels are showing nothing but a black-bordered portrait of Sihanouk, and playing dismal music. Other channels replay the footage of his final sarcophagus-inhabiting four-hour trip back from the airport. All day and all night long. Nightclubs are shuttered, bars can’t serve alcohol, restaurants can’t play happy music. Several people in my office have shaved their heads as a mark of respect. Major roads have been closed down; gridlock has become a fact of life this week.

A small proportion of the crowds, from close to my office


So the bars, and the alcohol, and the traffic things are kind of a drag. What grates on me, however, is the widespread acceptance that Sihanouk was an undeniable force for good. Because there is no escaping the fact that he threw his lot in with the Khmer Rouge, and was to some extent responsible for the slaughter of fully a third of his subjects. But you don’t hear much about that in the air in Phnom Penh at the moment.

But I was talking to a hotelier a couple of nights ago. He employs a lot of local staff, and takes a lot of interest in them. He told me that when he talked to the staff as a group, everyone was bowed down by the weight of their grief, full of nothing but praise for Sihanouk. But when away from the group, none of then cared overmuch. “Not a very good man,” was the consensus.

Mr Hotelier said he’d seen exactly the same thing during the commune elections earlier this year. In public, everyone loves Hun Sen’s ruling CPP. In private, everyone hates it. But the CPP still won, handsomely. So someone’s lying.

There is, perhaps, a feeling that this public outpouring of grief has more to do with a sadness at the growing desuetude and irrelevance of the Cambodian royals. At least Sihanouk had been a player on the world stage, and had managed to wrest independence from the French without a single shot being fired, which the country’s hated Vietnamese neighbours couldn’t manage.

The current king, 59-year-old Norodom Sihamoni, used to teach ballet in Paris, and is unmarried (his father noted once that “he loves women as his sisters”). His lack of an heir is not a major problem, as succession here is decided by a council of government ministers. Sihamoni, who by all accounts is a decent man, is perhaps most notable as the only reigning king in the world who can speak Czech.

The king sympathising


But if that’s your claim to fame, you’ve got to wonder how relevant you might be. So perhaps the grief on the streets is the last gasp of Cambodia’s royal pride, and, as such, is entirely  understandable. Khmers are justifiably proud of their history, and Sihanouk is a vital link to that.

Certainly the media and the magazine-buying public aren’t responsible for Sihanouk’s death, as they were with Princess Diana. And surely anything that gets 10,000 Buddhist monks onto the streets can’t be a bad thing.


Just a few of them


One Response to “Royalty check”

  1. Wayne Judd said

    Well said good man, I couldn’t agree with you more.

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