Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk has announced his abdication, sick and dismayed at political infighting in his impoverished country as it struggles to recover from the "Killing Fields" era.
"I hope this is not a permanent abdication," Norodom Ranariddh, president of the National Assembly, said of his ailing 83-year-old father, who has threatened abdication many times although the constitution does not allow it.
Some analysts said his new declaration may be designed to force the government to choose a successor before he dies.
But Sihanouk said in a statement he would not return to Cambodia until the nine-member Royal Throne Council responsible for choosing his successor had named a new king.
"I will return to Cambodia to live at Siem Reap/Angkor when the Royal Throne Council has chosen a new king," he said, referring to the city in northwest Cambodia adjacent to the famed Angkor Wat temples.
In a Khmer-language message to Cambodians posted on his website, Sihanouk said he was too old, sick and tired to carry on.
"I have had the great honour to serve the nation and people for more than half century. I am too old now," he said.
"I cannot continue my mission and activities as king and head of state to serve the needs of the nation any longer," he said. "As I am getting old, my body and my pulse is getting weaker."
"It is up to the Royal Throne Council to decide whether Prince Sihamoni or who else will be an appropriate successor to Norodom Sihanouk."
That was taken as a strong signal that he wanted 51-year-old Sihamoni, one of his two sons, named as successor, analysts said.
Sihanouk had been scheduled to return to Phnom Penh today after undergoing medical treatment for several months in Beijing.
"This is a serious situation for Cambodia," Ranariddh said. He added that the country's leaders would try to persuade him not to quit.
Sihanouk was last seen in public a week ago as guest of honour at a reception in Beijing marking the 55th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese People's Republic. He was escorted into the room by President Hu Jintao.
There was no sign of unusual activity at Sihanouk's courtyard home in Beijing given to him by former premier Chou Enlai, where two armed guards stood behind locked metal gates.
Sihanouk has threatened repeatedly to quit because political wrangling has upset him, particularly when parties took a year to form a government after indecisive elections in 2003.
"The King always protects his throne. He loves it. He cannot leave the royal throne vacant," said leading human rights activist Thun Saray.
"His Majesty always changes his mind. He will stay when Buddhist monks and the people ask him to stay," he said.
"He wants to see everything ready before he finally abdicates," said an Asian diplomat.
Ranariddh said there could be no immediate discussion of a successor because Prime Minister Hun Sen, a member of the Royal Throne Council was in Hanoi for an Asia-Europe meeting, being attended by the Taoiseach.
"The royalist and ruling parties will continue to protect the monarchy and I hope the King will stay, not abdicate," Ranariddh said.
The council comprises the prime minister, the president and two vice-presidents of the National Assembly, the president and two vice presidents of the Senate and two top Buddhist monks.