Cambodians mourn former king

Friday, 08 February 2013 From Issue Vol. XXI No. 6 By  Denis D. Gray

Cambodia mourns as ‘King-Father’ Sihanouk cremated

Phnom Penh, Cambodia (AP) - Hundreds of thousands of mourners gathered in Cambodia’s capital Monday for the cremation of former King Norodom Sihanouk, the revered “King-Father,” who survived wars and the murderous Khmer Rouge regime to hold center stage in the Southeast Asian nation for more than half a century.

Cambodians from across the country flocked to Phnom Penh to pay their last respects as Sihanouk was given elaborate funeral rites - mingling Hindu, Buddhist and animist traditions - last seen 53 years ago with the death of Sihanouk’s father, King Norodom Suramarit. And they may never be seen again in a rapidly modernizing country where the monarchy has lost much of its power and glamor.

The chariot carrying the portrait of late former King Norodom Sihanouk leads his royal funeral procession Friday, Feb. 1, 2013, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Thousands of mourners accompanied a gilded chariot carrying the body of former King Sihanouk - the dominant figure of modern Cambodia - in a funeral procession Friday to a cremation ground next to the palace where he was crowned more than 70 years ago. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)The chariot carrying the portrait of late former King Norodom Sihanouk leads his royal funeral procession Friday, Feb. 1, 2013, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Thousands of mourners accompanied a gilded chariot carrying the body of former King Sihanouk - the dominant figure of modern Cambodia - in a funeral procession Friday to a cremation ground next to the palace where he was crowned more than 70 years ago. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

After sunset, Sihanouk’s son King Norodom Sihamoni and widow, Queen Mother Norodom Monineath, both weeping, ignited the funeral pyre inside a temple-like, 15-story-high crematorium. Howitzers fired salvos as fireworks lit up the sky.

“I would exchange my life for his if he could live because he was a great leader who brought peace, prosperity for the whole nation,” said Pal Hor, an ailing, 64-year-old man who had come from the distant province of Battambang. He said he shaved his head out of reverence for the deceased monarch.

Thousands of mourners gather at the Royal Palace and wait in line to pay their respects in Phnom Penh, Saturday, Feb. 2. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)Thousands of mourners gather at the Royal Palace and wait in line to pay their respects in Phnom Penh, Saturday, Feb. 2. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

After the cremation, Sihamoni handed out gifts to some 400 prisoners he had earlier pardoned as part of the mourning for his father, who he said was “in heaven, near the Lord Buddha, forever.”

“May the much revered king support and protect the entire Kingdom of Cambodia and Cambodians forever,” he said.

The cremation took place within a walled compound where 90 Buddhist monks - one for each year of Sihanouk’s life as counted by Cambodians - chanted around the flower-decked, gilt coffin. Only the country’s elite and foreign dignitaries were allowed inside the cremation ground, along with courtiers dressed in pantaloons and soldiers in 19th century-style uniforms with spiked helmets and swords.

Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni, center right, son of the late King Norodom Sihanouk, and his mother, Queen Norodom Monineath, center left, with Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, covering his mouth, leave the crematorium where the body of the late former Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk rests in Phnom Penh, Monday, Feb. 4. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni, center right, son of the late King Norodom Sihanouk, and his mother, Queen Norodom Monineath, center left, with Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, covering his mouth, leave the crematorium where the body of the late former Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk rests in Phnom Penh, Monday, Feb. 4. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

The $1.2 million crematorium, built just for this funeral, will be dismantled in keeping with Cambodian tradition.

Sihanouk’s body had been lying in state since he died of a heart attack in Beijing on Oct. 15 at the age of 89.

The cremation was the climax of seven days of official mourning for Sihanouk, who was placed on the throne by the French as a teenager. Instead of proving the puppet the colonials had hoped for, Sihanouk went on to win independence, then rule the country both as monarch and head of state until ousted in a 1970 coup. Internationally, he was a leading member of the non-aligned movement and heightened his small country’s profile in the world.

The royal guards on the chariot accompany the casket of Cambodia’s late former King Norodom Sihanouk in a funeral procession in Phnom Penh, Friday, Feb. 1. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)The royal guards on the chariot accompany the casket of Cambodia’s late former King Norodom Sihanouk in a funeral procession in Phnom Penh, Friday, Feb. 1. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

A charismatic figure regarded as a “God-King” by many of his subjects, a prideful Sihanouk sided with the Khmer Rouge against the U.S.-backed government, but after the victory of the ultra-communists in 1975, he and his wife were held prisoners in the palace. Five of his children died during the reign of terror.

The chariot carrying the casket of Cambodia’s late former King Norodom Sihanouk leads the funeral procession in Phnom Penh, Friday, Feb. 1. Norodom Chakrapong, brother of Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni, is seen at third right at the chariot.(AP Photo/Heng Sinith)The chariot carrying the casket of Cambodia’s late former King Norodom Sihanouk leads the funeral procession in Phnom Penh, Friday, Feb. 1. Norodom Chakrapong, brother of Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni, is seen at third right at the chariot.(AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

A consummate survivor, Sihanouk emerged as a leader of an insurgency fighting a Phnom Penh government installed by the Vietnamese and went on to broker a peace accord that enabled his return to the throne in 1993. He abdicated 11 years later in favor of Sihamoni, a 59-year-old former ballet dancer who had spent most of his life in European artistic circles and has proven a low-keyed constitutional monarch overshadowed by strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Sihanouk’s dark side, particularly his cooperation with the Khmer Rouge and his often brutal suppression of dissent, has been publicly ignored as loudspeakers broadcast eulogies and television stations show old clips of Sihanouk’s triumphs and ebullient personality.

Cambodian flags fly at half-mast as cannons are placed for gun salutes during the cremation of former King Norodom Sihanouk near the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, Monday, Feb. 4. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)Cambodian flags fly at half-mast as cannons are placed for gun salutes during the cremation of former King Norodom Sihanouk near the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, Monday, Feb. 4. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

A larger-than-life character, Sihanouk directed films, composed music and led his own jazz band and palace soccer team. His appetite extended to fast cars, food and women, marrying at least five times, some say six, and fathering 14 children.

In the coming days, some of Sihanouk’s ashes will be scattered near the confluence of the four rivers in Phnom Penh, while others will be put in an urn which, according to his wishes, will be placed on the grounds of the Royal Palace near those of his favorite daughter, Kunthea Buppha, who died at the age of 3.

Fireworks explode next to a poster of Cambodia’s former King Norodom Sihanouk as his body is cremated in Phnom Penh. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)Fireworks explode next to a poster of Cambodia’s former King Norodom Sihanouk as his body is cremated in Phnom Penh. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

The funeral is being attended by French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, Prince Akishino of Japan, leaders of neighboring countries and China’s Jia Qinglin, a senior government adviser and former high-ranking Politburo member.

Representing the United States is Ambassador William E. Todd. The U.S. Embassy did not directly respond to explain such a relatively low-level representation given the long U.S. involvement in Cambodia.

Fireworks and smoke surround the crematorium site where Cambodia’s former King Norodom Sihanouk rests, in Phnom Penh. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)Fireworks and smoke surround the crematorium site where Cambodia’s former King Norodom Sihanouk rests, in Phnom Penh. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

Many Cambodians were upset when President Barack Obama was one of the only leaders attending a regional summit here in November not to pay his respects before Sihanouk’s body. The president had a reportedly tense meeting with Hun Sen at the time, with Obama pressing him on Cambodia’s worsening human rights record.

Fireworks explode at the site of cremation for Cambodia’s former King Norodom Sihanouk in Phnom Penh. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)Fireworks explode at the site of cremation for Cambodia’s former King Norodom Sihanouk in Phnom Penh. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

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