As her given name at birth was “Paule Monique Izzi,” she is still sometimes referred to as “Queen Monique.” The occasion is an official public holiday, known as “King’s Mother Birthday” because she is the mother of Cambodia’s king.
In 1936, in Saigon, Queen Monique was born to Jean Francois Izzi, a French banker from Corsica who died during World War II, and Pomme Peang, her mother, who was born in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. She met Norodom Sihanouk, then-king of Cambodia, in 1951, when she won a beauty pageant. In 1952, she was secretly married to the king, and in 1955, she married him again but publicly. Thus, she became queen of Cambodia. However, her husband had to abdicate the throne in 1955, though he later became head of state as “premier” in 1960.
During the 1960’s, Queen Monique was the object of much criticism from all sides. She was accused of introducing a state-run casino and of straining relations between the king and his mother. It was also said that she had been involved in promoting personal friends to high-up, high-paying positions. Both the brutal leaders of the Khmer Rouge and the leaders of the Khmer Republic “took shots at” her for a time. In her favour, however, she did serve as head of the Cambodian Red Cross from 1967 to 1970 and is still the honorary president of that organisation. Today, she is very popular, despite her temporary unpopularity of the past.
Queen Monique and her husband went into exile in 1970, when revolution broke out in Cambodia. Her husband, King Norodom Sihanouk, finally aligned with the Khmer Rouge in 1973 as part of a strategy to defeat Lon Nol, the leader of the revolt that overthrew him in 1970. The Rouge finally took Phnom Penh in 1975, and the queen and king returned to Cambodia. However, despite being nominally made head of state, they were put under house arrest, subjected to “re-education,” and had to watch helplessly as 18 of their family members were executed. Only pressure from China and North Korea kept Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge from executing the royal couple themselves. Finally, they were allowed to flee to China in 1979. In 1991, after 12 years in exile, they returned to Cambodia. When her husband passed away, her son became the new king.
King’s Mother Birthday is a low-key holiday in Cambodia. The main observances are held by government representatives at dinner parties where they make cordial toasts to the Queen’s continued good health. However, many Cambodians do get the day off work, and there are a few traditions associated with the holiday.
Should you be in Cambodia for the birthday of Queen Monique on June 18th, some things to do include:
- Follow the tradition now developing of making King’s Mother Birthday a “family day.” People go with their children to parks and shopping malls and take part in various kid’s events organised by local governments. Whether in Phnom Penh or another municipality, you can probably find some “kid-centred” festivals going on.
- Many also use this day as an occasion to pray for the health of the “Queen Mother” at Buddhist temples. You may wish to visit some of these temples to see their intricate architecture.
- In Phnom Penh, there are numerous “traditional arts” events that will give you a taste of the local culture on King’s Mother Birthday. There is also a fireworks show, which you won’t want to miss.
- Tour the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, where the royal family resides. Its Khmer-French architecture is stunning and nearly 100 years old. Other than the part of the palace where the royal family actually lives, most of it is open to the public. Look for the Silver Pagoda, the lush, tropical gardens on the palace grounds, and for the surrounding wall with its decorative designs.