Remembering Norodom Sihanouk
- Published: 16/10/2012 at 12:31 AM
- Online news:
PHNOM PENH : Chanting prayers and burning incense, grief-stricken Cambodians paid tribute on Monday to their ex-king Norodom Sihanouk, whose passing fell poignantly during the solemn festival of the dead.
In the unusually quiet capital of Phnom Penh, flags fluttering at half mast were among the few outward symbols that hinted at the death of a man whose triumphs and tragedies loomed large over their lives for decades.
News of his demise quickly spread across the city, where families were already gathering to honour their deceased relatives on the final day of the Pchum Ben festival.
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"There are hundreds of people coming to pray for the King-Father," said Buddhist priest Mot Sok, after leading the solemn crowd into a blessing for Sihanouk at one busy temple in the capital.
"He should have lived longer to watch over Cambodians. I personally feel so sad," the cleric said as monks chanted rhythmically in the background.
The body of the revered former Cambodian king Sihanouk, who died in Beijing aged 89 on Monday, will go on display in Phnom Penh for three months before a lavish state funeral, an official said.
The body is set to arrive in the Cambodian capital on Wednesday afternoon and a mourning period will last until Oct 21, government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said.
"(The) funeral will be three months later," he said, explaining that it would give Cambodians a chance to pay their respects to the beloved monarch, whose life encompassed turbulent years of rule, exile, conflict and tragedy, including the Khmer Rouge reign of terror.
The decision was made at a high-level meeting in Phnom Penh, hours after news broke that the royal had died early Monday at a Beijing hospital following a heart attack.
Cambodia's current King Norodom Sihamoni, who ascended the throne after his father Sihanouk abruptly abdicated in 2004, and Prime Minister Hun Sen have flown to Beijing to collect the body.
Khieu Kanharith said he believed around a hundred thousand people would line the streets of the capital on Wednesday to mark Sihanouk's final return to Phnom Penh after spending the last 10 months in China undergoing medical treatment.
Sihanouk's long-time assistant Prince Sisowath Thomico said he too expected a large outpouring of grief for the charismatic royal in Phnom Penh, where flags were already flying at half-mast on Monday.
"We can expect many people along the streets when the body returns," he said.
He said plans to put the body on display were in line with Cambodian practice.
"It's according to the tradition of the Cambodian royal family," he said, adding that the same procedure was followed when Sihanouk's father, then King Norodom Suramarit, died in 1960.
Sihanouk, who died in Beijing after a long battle with a range of illnesses, towered over Cambodian politics for over half a century.
He became known as the "King-Father" after abdicating for the last time in 2004 in a country where he regarded the people as his "children".
The charismatic and unpredictable former king is especially fondly remembered by the older generation.
For them, he represented Cambodia's golden years of the 1950s and 1960s, when the country won independence from France and enjoyed rare stability before being thrust into conflict culminating in the Khmer Rouge terror of the 1970s.
Sihanouk, who had backed the communist fighters as they seized power, was to lose five of his 14 children during the regime's reign of terror in a tragedy that helped cement his reputation as a ruler who suffered with his people.
Within hours of his death, some local people had written their grief on their bodies.
Sok Samrith displayed her newly shaved head as a symbol of her mourning for Sihanouk as she sat in the shade of a neatly-manicured tree in a park in front of the palace.
The 53-year-old said she wanted to contemplate the passing of a man who was much revered by her late mother and who once gave her a pin shaped like the royal palace.
"To pay gratitude to him, I shaved my hair, and I will pray for him so that he can rest in peace. I am so sad," she said.
Twenty-year-old university student Sochakray Theng lit incense at a pagoda near the Royal Palace and said a prayer for the late king, before offering red grapes, bottled water and some money to monks to mark the end of Pchum Ben.
"I heard from the older generation that he tried his best to help the people of Cambodia," she said.
Traditionally Cambodians go back to their home villagers in the countryside during the 15-day festival, when the dead are believed to emerge to walk the earth.
On the streets of the capital some expressed bewilderment that the former king had died, despite his long health battles and protracted absences in China for treatment.
Credited with helping his country return to peace in the 1990s, Sihanouk remained a much-loved figure even after his abdication in favour of his son.
Portraits of him and his sixth wife Queen Monique still adorn many Cambodian homes, an adoration that has never quite been replicated by current King Norodom Sihamoni.
"Every single Cambodian feels sorry for the King-Father," said musician Sor Phan, 62, outside the royal palace. "I do not know what is going to happen to my country now that he has gone."
"Sihanouk is Cambodia," his official biographer, Julio Jeldres, once said of the former king.
He had been plagued by poor health in the final years of his life, including cancer and diabetes, and frequently spent long spells being treated in China, where he died early Monday.
A self-described "naughty boy" with a taste for life's pleasures and an artistic flair, Sihanouk embraced the intrigue that swirled around his kingdom with the gusto of a character from one of the dozens of films he made.
The playboy-monarch married six times and fathered 14 children. Aside from his cinematic creations, he also wrote poetry and composed songs.
But Sihanouk was far from frivolous, emerging as a shrewd survivor who caught friend and foe alike off guard with charm and political wit.
A boy of just 18 when placed on the throne in 1941 by French colonial authorities, Sihanouk quickly defied his patron's expectations for a pliant king.
Twelve years later, he gained Cambodia's independence and shortly after quit the throne in favour of his father Prince Norodom Suramarit to pursue a career in politics.
He served as premier half a dozen times, repeatedly leaving the post with a characteristic flash of angry theatre over perceived slights, until finally becoming "head of state" following the death of his father in 1960.
In the decade that followed, he presided over a period of rare stability, helping to forge a modern nation.
His frequent public appearances - Sihanouk seemed to relish working alongside rural villagers on various public works projects - formed in the minds of his people an unbreakable bond between the man and the country he reigned over.
Toppled in a US-backed coup by one of his own generals, Lon Nol, in 1970, the prince, who was in exile in Beijing, then made what was likely his most controversial decision.
He aligned himself with communist guerillas who later emerged as the Khmer Rouge, the movement that was later to cast Cambodia into a frenzy of killing and devastation.
The guerillas used Sihanouk as a figurehead, drawing on his popularity for support during their ferocious five-year war against Lon Nol.
When they took the capital Phnom Penh in 1975, the Khmer Rouge promptly emptied the city, exiling millions to vast collective farms and setting the country on the path to destruction in their drive to create an agrarian utopia.
Sihanouk returned from China and temporarily remained head of state but was forced by the Khmer Rouge to resign a year later and kept under house arrest in the royal palace with his family.
He was unable to stop the bloodletting that left up to two million people, including five of his children, dead by the time Vietnamese troops and Khmer Rouge defectors ousted the regime in 1979.
Sihanouk survived because China, a key backer of the Khmer Rouge, wanted him alive and he fled to Beijing after the regime crumbled, living in villas there and in Pyongyang - another ally of the monarch's - for the next 13 years.
Always by his side was his sixth wife Monique, an Italian-Cambodian he married in 1952.
The ever-mercurial Sihanouk condemned the Khmer Rouge, but during the 1980s, he served as a figurehead leader of a resistance coalition that included remnants of the regime.
He pushed relentlessly for peace, though, opening negotiations with Prime Minister Hun Sen's government after Vietnamese troops withdrew from Cambodia in 1989.
Sihanouk's strength of will is largely credited with making the 1991 UN-sponsored peace accords possible, paving the way for Cambodia's first democratic elections two years later.
It was also in 1993 that Sihanouk re-ascended the throne after almost four decades.
Despite his later abdication, Sihanouk remained the moral anchor for Cambodians and often used his personal website to comment on political matters.
In October 2009, after surviving a third bout of cancer, the ex-monarch posted a message saying that he had lived too long.
"Lengthy longevity bears on me like an unbearable weight," he wrote.