New king of Cambodia - another Czech speaker on world political scene

15-10-2004

Later this month, the Cambodian Prince Norodom Sihamoni will be crowned the country's new king after his father, Norodom Sihanouk, abdicated last week. Cambodia's ex-ambassador to Unesco, Prince Sihamoni is also a former ballet dancer. But it is not widely-known that he had spent thirteen years in Prague studying classical ballet at various schools. Also, the new king of Cambodia is not the only one among world politicians who speaks fluent Czech - a language often described as very difficult to master.

New king of Cambodia Norodom Sihamoni, photo: CTKNew king of Cambodia Norodom Sihamoni, photo: CTK One of those fluent Czech speakers is the former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. For Madeleine Albright Czech is her mother tongue although she did not have much chance to practise in her native Czechoslovakia where she spent only three months as a child.

Still, she's not the only world politician who doesn't need an interpreter when she visits the Czech Republic; unlike Mrs Albright others learnt Czech as a second language, usually during their university studies in Czechoslovakia. One of them is the Culture Minister on the Iraqi governing council, Mufid al-Jazairi.

Mr al-Jazairi, a former reporter at the Arabic Section of Radio Prague, studied journalism in Prague in the 1960s and 1970s, the same period that Prince Norodom Sihamoni of Cambodia was studying at Prague Conservatory and later at the Academy of Performing Arts. There he wrote his dissertation on the possibilities of applying classical dance in Cambodian art.

Miroslav Nozina from the Institute of International Relations in Prague is an expert on Cambodia.

"Sihamoni was sent to Prague as a young child and stayed until adulthood. From here he left for Korea but he returned to Cambodia soon after the Khmer Rouge took over the country. During the four-year Khmer Rouge regime he was kept under house arrest in the palace in Phnom Penh along with his father. During his studies in Prague, he lived with a Czech family, made many friends here, learnt perfect Czech and till this day he comes to visit the Czech Republic and I think he likes this country a lot."

Communist Czechoslovakia offered scholarships to young people from developing countries in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and South East Asia and in return tried to gain political and economic influence in those countries.

"The communist regime tried to expand abroad. It is obvious that if you invite a student to live here, he learns the language and develops a bond to the country. After he returns home he favours his former host country both politically and economically. It was common practice in the Eastern Bloc; it was a common policy towards developing countries."

Today the Czech language can be understood at many government ministries in Vietnam and China, as many of the countries' officials originally studied in communist Czechoslovakia. Another fluent Czech speaker is also the former prime minister of North Korea, Hong Song-nam.

Potentially, the most influential world politician with a Czech connection is the US Presidential Candidate John Kerry, whose ancestors hailed from the eastern part of the country. He certainly doesn't speak any Czech, but may learn at least some if his office takes up a recent offer by citizens from his grandfather's ancestral town, Horni Benesov, offering him honorary citizenship.

15-10-2004