Cambodia's farewell to a mercurial king

Last updated 14:35 05/02/2013
King Norodom Sihanouk
REUTERS

MOURNERS: Mourners line up in front of a crematorium where a coffin with the remains of Cambodia's late King Norodom Sihanouk.

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Cambodians have bid goodbye with tears, chanting and fireworks to their former King Norodom Sihanouk, who led them through half a century of political tumult that took them into the abyss of genocidal Khmer Rouge rule and back out again.

Hundreds of thousands of Cambodians thronged the capital on Monday (local time) for the elaborate royal cremation of the maddening mercurial leader whose charm often overshadowed missteps that to most of his countrymen have faded away in a fog of nostalgia for a simpler time.

Sihanouk's elaborate funeral rites - mingling Hindu, Buddhist and animist traditions - were last seen 53 years ago with the death of his father, King Norodom Suramarit. And they may never be seen again in a rapidly modernising country where the monarchy has lost much of its power and glamour.

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-storey-high crematorium. Howitzers fired salvos and fireworks lit up the sky when they left about half an hour later.

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".

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.

Sihanouk's body had been lying in state since he died of a heart attack in Beijing on October 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.

Sihanouk sided with the Khmer Rouge against the US-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.

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 favour of Sihamoni, a 59-year-old former ballet dancer who had spent most of his life in European artistic circles and has proved a low-key constitutional monarch overshadowed by the powerful 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.

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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.

- Reuters

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