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Cambodia in period of uncertainty

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — The Cambodian king's best-known son left for China Saturday in an effort to persuade his ailing father to rethink his decision abdicating the throne.

King Norodom Sihanouk, 81, stunned his country when he announced Thursday that he would step down because of poor health, and asked Cambodia's leaders to find a replacement.

Sihanouk, highly regarded by most of his countrymen, is seen as a stabilizing figure on the country's troubled political scene. No successor could inherit his moral authority, and a mishandled succession could lead to the end of the monarchy.

The king has been abroad since January — mostly in the Chinese capital — to receive medical treatment, and to protest the failure of Cambodia's political leaders to solve the country's numerous social and economic problems.

Prince Norodom Ranariddh, who is also the head of the National Assembly, said he was heading to Beijing with instructions from Prime Minister Hun Sen "to beg" the king to remain on the throne — a largely ceremonial post, but one with strong influence on the country's affairs.

"My trip to Beijing at this time is very important for our nation and also for the future of the monarchy," Ranariddh told reporters before leaving Phnom Penh's airport Saturday.

Hun Sen spoke to the prince by phone from Vietnam, where he's attending an Asia-Europe meeting, the prince said.

Ranariddh acknowledged it might be difficult to persuade the king to change his mind.

Ranariddh would serve on the panel that would choose the next king. He is a candidate for the position, but has said he is not interested.

A vote of five of the panel's nine members is needed to approve a new king, who must be chosen within seven days "after the king dies, retires or abdicates," according to legislation hastily passed on Friday by the lower house as it created the council.

The Senate was expected to act Monday, Ranariddh said. There may be leeway in the deadline, because the constitution does not address the details of abdication.

Cambodia's next king need not be a direct heir of Sihanouk, but must have royal blood.