Monday, 2 April 2012

Cambodia - Monarchy in the 21st Century

I'm not sure many people could have guessed that Cambodia would enter the 21st century as the Kingdom of Cambodia. Mind you, there aren't many countries in the world, where a reigning monarch has been in favour of Communism (as Norodom Sihanouk, father of the current King of Cambodia, seemed to be during the 1960's). Nor have many of the world's monarchs been so warmly welcomed in Communist Beijing, as Sihanouk was, or gone into self-imposed exile in North Korea, where Sihanouk went after his abdication in 2004. Needless to say, the monarchy in Cambodia is different than most other monarchies around the world!

His Majesty King Norodom Sihamoni

The current King of Cambodia, Norodom Sihamoni is a fascinating character. He's well-educated and travelled, was trained as a Classical Dance Instructor and is the only reigning monarch who is fluent in Czech! I'm no big fan of monarchy but - dare I say it - he sounds like a really nice guy! I guess modern-day constitutional monarchs have a symbolic role of to play in the countries where they are Heads of State. Like our President in Ireland, the King of Cambodia seems to be more  cultural ambassador than tyrannical leader.

Monarchy around the World
Royal Palace, Phnom Penh by Wilson Loo
It always surprises me that monarchies continue to flourish in the 21st century, in different parts of the world. I personally don't agree with the hereditary aspect of monarchy, or the idea that there should be a princeps civitatis (or principle citizen) who is somehow 'better' than other citizens. Monarchy underpins a basic 'inequality' in society that makes me feel uncomfortable. Monarchists might claim that the system is 'harmless', but you have to wonder at the underlying message that is given out by a political system with a hereditary figure at the top.

Japan has the longest-running monarchy in the world, the current Emperor Akihito is the latest ruler in a line stretching back to the 4th century CE (Common Era). I've already blogged about the House of Saud and the last Maharani of Jaipur.

Other countries with monarchies, include most of the Scandinavian countries, African countries like Lesotho and Swaziland, the Sultanates of the Middle East and Malaysia, as well as some small island nations in the Pacific. The world's newest monarch, Tupou VI, became King of Tonga a couple of weeks ago!

King Bhumibhol and lese-majesty

Door detail by Wilson Loo
The world's longest-reigning monarch is King Bhumibhol Adulyadej of Thailand, just across the border from Cambodia. I spent a year in Thailand and became incredibly aware of the importance of the Thai king in the country's political system and culture. Thailand is a country that still frequently prosecutes people for the crime of lese-majesty. From the French for 'injury to the monarch', lese-majesty means any crime that is deemed to be injurious to the monarch or ruling Head of State. It includes crimes like the counterfeiting of currency, as coins and notes usually contain the monarch's profile. It's more common these days to seelese-majesty being exercised in cases such as libel.

Although I don't agree with the concept of monarchy, I also think that it's wrong to go to a country like Thailand, as a foreigner, and make flippant comments about an issue that is incredibly sensitive and little understood by 'westerners'. There have been some famous cases of foreigners being prosecuted in Thailand, like the Swiss man who sprayed graffiti on portraits of the King in Chiang Mai and received a ten-year jail sentence. However, most lese-majesty prosecutions involve Thai citizens and recent civil unrest in Thailand has seen an increase in incidents of lese-majesty. Internet sites like YouTube and Twitter are becoming the battle-grounds where a debate on the Thai monarchy, suppressed elsewhere, are coming to the fore.

The Queen's Jubilee

I don't think lese-majesty is such a massive issue in the UK and criticism of the Royal family, by those who don't believe in monarchy, is fairly common. Nevertheless, I'm sure there will be a lot of flag-waving for the Queen's Jubilee in June - 60 years on the throne, Elizabeth II is currently the world's second-longest reigning monarch.

The position of the monarchy in the UK seems to be stronger than ever and the argument about the value of the royal family, in terms of bringing in tourist revenues, continues as ever. I don't really believe that the royal family per se is the reason why tourists come to the UK. I'm sure people would still come to see the palaces and other historical buildings, whether or not the royal family was around. Whilst it's obvious that the British royal family is very popular with some overseas visitors, I'm sure that the majority of people that live, work and visit the UK, are fairly indifferent to the monarchy, most of the time.

Royal Palace, Phnom Penh by Wilson Loo
An elected Monarch?

Going back to Cambodia, I find it interesting that the role of Cambodian monarch is both a hereditary one and an elected one. Most hereditary systems mean that the eldest son (or sometimes daughter) will become monarch, when the reigning monarch passes away or abdicates. King Sihamoni isn't Sihanouk's oldest son, but was elected from a list of possible heirs by a council under the supervision of the Cambodian Prime Minister.

It seems like a fairly sensible system to me, as every royal family has its 'bad eggs' and this kind of selection could be used to by-pass heirs that were not fit to rule.

It would be interesting to apply this system to the British Royal family and I guess it would be the equivalent of having a choice between Prince Charles and his brothers, sisters and sons. It would be interesting to see who would win the selection, especially if it was put to a popular vote!

Image credits:

All images were taken at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh by flickr member Wilson Loo who is from Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia.  You can see more of Wilson's work on his Flickr photostream and on his Facebook page.  Thanks Wilson for sharing these images with us using the Creative Commons license.

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