As the sun sets and the last tourist departs his vast, fairy-tale palace, the gentle, dignified man is left almost alone with memories of happier times, before he became the reluctant king of Cambodia — and perhaps its last.

King Norodom Sihamoni is heir to a royal line trailing back some 2,000 years, but he always seemed more suited to the arts scene in Europe, where he was a ballet dancer, than the rough and tumble politics of his homeland. Now, close aides and experts say, he has become figuratively, and more, a prisoner in his own palace.

The chief warden: Prime Minister Hun Sen, who rose from a poor rural background to become a brilliant and crafty, some say ruthless, politician.

Hun Sen consolidated power in a 1997 coup as Cambodia slowly emerged from being dragged into the Vietnam War and its own civil war. While the country is nominally democratic, he uses all the machinery of government to lock up critics and ensure his re-election.

His control extends over the palace. The king is surrounded by the government's watchdogs, overseen by Minister of Royal Affairs Kong Som Ol, an official close to Hun Sen. Sihamoni is closely chaperoned on his few trips outside palace walls, with the media kept away. Although the constitution endows him with considerable powers, they have never been granted.

"I think we can use the words 'puppet king.' His power has been reduced to nothing," says Son Chhay, an opposition member of Parliament and one of the government's few outspoken critics. "The king must please the prime minister as much as possible in order to survive. It is sad to see."

It wasn't always so. Sihamoni's flamboyant and charismatic father, Norodom Sihanouk, bestrode the country like a colossus for decades. Many regarded him as a god-king, and thousands flocked to the plaza fronting the Royal Palace for fireworks and other lavish celebrations on his birthday.

Sihanouk abruptly abdicated in 2004 after confrontations with Hun Sen. Son Chhay and others say Sihamoni accepted the crown under pressure from parents hoping to ensure the survival of the monarchy.

Seven years later, "sad, lonely, abandoned" are words sympathetic Cambodians often use when describing Sihamoni, 58. The monarch spends much of each day signing documents, receiving guests and handling other routine business, then retires mostly to dine alone and read, says Prince Sisowath Thomico, Sihanouk's private secretary and an adviser to his son.

"The king is a good, gentle man, a symbol of Cambodia. But he has one problem: no power. He only stays inside the palace. On television the leaders bow down before him, but behind his back there is no respect," said Sin Chhay, a young civil servant at the plaza. "You could say that Hun Sen is the real king of Cambodia."

Information Minister Khieu Kanharith insists the king is involved in social and religious affairs and judicial reviews, receives a monthly report from Hun Sen on government activities and makes recommendations on them.

"The current King Sihamoni has played an important role in restoring the … monarchy. As a king and symbol of national unity, he maintains strict neutrality and doesn't become involved in any political activities," he said. "To say that he's a prisoner in the palace would be inappropriate."

Sihamoni, a former ballet dancer and cultural ambassador, spent 25 years in Czechoslovakia and France. That European past, Western diplomats say, is his great escape.

He returns regularly to what is now the Czech Republic, calling it "my second homeland."

He keeps in close touch with the family that cared for him after he arrived in the Czech capital at age 9. Thirteen years later, he graduated from Prague's Academy of Musical Art.

Shortly after, he joined his parents, who were being kept under virtual house arrest within the palace by the brutal Khmer Rouge government, which came to power after defeating a U.S.-backed government in 1975. Sihamoni worked in the palace gardens and cleaned out the throne hall.

After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, Sihanouk went to Paris, from where he backed resistance against a Vietnamese-installed government that replaced it.

Sihamoni also went to the French capital and stayed on even after his father was restored as king in 1993. He taught, performed and choreographed classical Cambodian dance as well as Western ballet and served as ambassador to the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

He gave up this much-cherished life to become king in 2004.

The king's high privy councilor, Son Soubert, who is aligned with one of the two small opposition parties with parliamentary seats, says the government has blocked passage of two constitutional provisions: the formation of a potentially powerful Supreme Council of National Defense headed by the king, and an annual National Congress that would continue the tradition of citizens appealing directly to the monarch.

Some question just how much power Sihamoni wants to wield or is capable of exercising.

"If he were to try to take a political role, I have no doubt Hun Sen would act to diminish him and the monarchy generally almost immediately. Which is why he is effectively a prisoner in the palace," says Milton Osborne, an Australian historian and author of a Sihanouk biography. "He could very well be the last king of Cambodia."

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