Ratree returns home as Cambodia bids Sihanouk farewell

PHNOM PENH - After spending two years and one month in jail, Thai activist Ratree Pipattanapaiboon was released on Friday as Cambodia prepared to say farewell to its former king.

  • Published: 1/02/2013 at 05:42 PM
  • Newspaper section: topstories

A mourner cries as she carries a portrait of the late former King Sihanouk in a funeral procession in Phnom Penh on Friday. (AP Photo)

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen granted the pardon to the Thai Patriots Network member on the occasion of the royal funeral of former king Norodom Sihanouk, which began on Friday.

Hun Sen also reduced the prison term for Ratree's colleague, jailed network leader Veera Somkwamkid, by six months.

Veera said in the Cambodian capital on Friday that he would appeal for a transfer to spend the rest of his prison sentence in Thailand at the end of this month, because he had served one-third of the sentence, which is a condition for making the request.

A Cambodian court in February 2011 sentenced Veera to eight years in jail and Ratree to six years for espionage and illegal entry after Cambodian authorities arrested them in December 2010. They were jailed at Prey Sar prison in Phnom Penh.

The pair were arrested along with five other Thais, including then-Democrat Party MP Panich Vikitsreth, on Dec 29, 2010 while "inspecting" a disputed border zone near the Preah Vihear temple in Sa Kaeo's Ban Nongchan.

Ratree was among 412 prisoners granted a royal pardon. Most will be released on Monday in conjunction of the cremation of Sihanouk.

Sihanouk's son Norodom Sihamoni, the current king, signed the royal decree to pardon the prisoners.

The ceremony for the prisoners to receive the royal pardon was held on Friday at Prey Sar.

"This is a special pardon to mark the royal funeral. It is the royal tradition to pardon prisoners during such a funeral for a king," Cambodian Justice Ministry spokesman Sam Pracheameanith said.

Sihanouk, who abdicated in 2004 after steering Cambodia through six decades marked by independence from France, civil war, the murderous Khmer Rouge regime and finally peace, died of a heart attack in Beijing on Oct 15 aged 89.

Sihanouk's casket was taken from the royal palace to a golden float, which transported the king's remains through the city to an ornate cremation site.

The coffin of the late former King Sihanouk is lifted onto a chariot in front of the Royal Palace during his funeral procession in Phnom Penh on Friday. (AFP Photo)

The sound of artillery shots rang out over Phnom Penh's riverfront as the colourful parade set off, including Hun Sen and thousands of other participants.

Sihanouk's widow Norodom Monineath Sihanouk and King Sihamoni walked slowly behind the casket, shaded by black parasols, as it was moved from the palace.

Some parade members played music while others clutched photographs of Sihanouk as the procession made slow progress through the streets. The king later toured the funeral site with Sihanouk's widow, who dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief during the morning's events.

University student Oun Bora, 25, was one of a group of youths who watched the spectacle from the riverside.

"I think it's amazing. I have never seen this before in my whole life. This event is like history," he said, highlighting Sihanouk's role in Cambodia's independence from France in 1953.

The former monarch's official biographer, Julio A. Jeldres, has called it "the end of an era".

"We will be paying homage to the `King Father,' showing our gratitude and our respect to him," Sihanouk's relative and procession member Prince Sisowath Thomico said on Thursday.

The prince, who had shaved his head as a mark of respect for the late monarch, estimated that 2 million to 3 million people would be in the capital for the royal cremation.

Buddhist monks were to hold a vigil by Sihanouk's body until Monday's cremation, and prayers would be said each evening, he said.

On Monday, Sihanouk's widow and son were scheduled to light the funeral pyre in the early evening. A fireworks display and gun salute were also to take place, the prince said.

Foreign dignitaries were expected to attend, including the prime ministers of France and Thailand.

The late monarch lived through turbulent times, including the 1975-1979 Khmer Rouge regime when an estimated 1.7 million to 2.2 million people died from forced labour, starvation, disease and summary executions.

About the author

Writer: Anucha Chareonpo and Agencies

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