PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – King Norodom Sihamoni addressed his nation for the first time as Cambodia’s new monarch Saturday, pledging to be a “faithful and loyal servant” of the people – many of whom knew little about him until two weeks ago.
Sihamoni, a former ballet dancer, spoke to a crowd of about 50,000 well-wishers who carried his portrait or their country’s flag and packed the park in front of the golden-hued Royal Palace.
“In all my life and in the future, I will always be a faithful and loyal servant to all of my compatriots,” he said. “I will always stay close to all compatriots … and share together the happiness and suffering,” he said, speaking from a pavilion overlooking the grassy square.
Sihamoni was enthroned late Friday in an elaborate ceremony that included blessings chanted by Buddhist monks, the blowing of conch shells and traditional music played with drums and gongs.
His ascension came two weeks after he was selected by a panel of political and religious leaders to succeed his father, Norodom Sihanouk, one of Asia’s most colorful rulers who abdicated three weeks ago, citing ill health.
Sihamoni said Saturday his father had some advice for him after his election, including avoiding corruption – a rampant problem at all levels of Cambodian society.
“Let papa remind you, son, that, if you want history to record you as a great king you must … not stand higher than the little people,” he said. “A king must consider himself during his lifetime and in all circumstances as a servant of … the people.”
Prime Minister Hun Sen and National Assembly President Prince Norodom Ranariddh, Sihamoni’s half brother, paid tribute to Sihanouk before the new king’s remarks, saying his achievements and the role he played during the last five decades were priceless and unforgettable.
“The continuity of the constitutional monarchy is a key to the stability of the kingdom of Cambodia,” Hun Sen said.
Ranariddh also wished Sihamoni “great success.”
“We are convinced that Cambodia under your leadership will be in peace, prosperity and unity,” he said. When he finished his speech, Sihamoni rose from his chair and applauded him.
The festive atmosphere on Saturday included two bands playing local pop music and the crowd cheering “Victorious!” and raising the country’s flag or portrait of Sihamoni when he spoke.
Some in the crowd laughed when they got a glimpse of Sihamoni as he emerged from the palace standing inside a convertible Mercedes, making his way to observe a religious ritual at a pagoda before his address.
Many onlookers, standing behind police lines, were so curious to see Sihamoni’s face that they broke through the blockade before being ushered back.
One of those was 79-year-old Chea Uorn, who traveled 50 miles to attend the ceremony. The toothless man held one portrait each of Sihanouk and Sihamoni.
“I’ve seen the face of the old king many times already, but now I want to see the face of the new one,” he said, holding up Sihamoni’s picture.
For most of the past two decades, Sihamoni has lived abroad, including in Paris where he served as his country’s envoy to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO.
Cambodia’s king is seldom involved in day-to-day politics, but the position carries huge cultural significance for the Cambodian, or Khmer, people, and the king has some influence on government decisions.