Cambodia mourns beloved ex-king Sihanouk
Tearful Cambodians wore black ribbons and flags flew at half-mast on Tuesday as the nation mourned the death of revered ex-king Norodom Sihanouk and prepared for the return of his body from China.
Sihanouk, who steered his country through decades of painful political and social upheavals, from independence to war, the Khmer Rouge terror and finally peace, died after suffering a heart attack in Beijing on Monday. He was 89.
His body is set to be brought back to his homeland on Wednesday where it will lie in state at the royal palace in Phnom Penh for three months ahead of a lavish funeral, according to government officials.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, in a condolence letter to Sihanouk’s wife Queen Monique and his son, current King Norodom Sihamoni, praised the “remarkable and incomparable” former monarch who will be remembered by his compatriots “for eternity”.
Hun Sen and Sihamoni are in Beijing, where Sihanouk had been staying since January for medical treatment, to collect the body.
The former king remained popular despite his abrupt abdication in 2004, on the grounds of old age and poor health, and his reputation for somewhat erratic political manoeuvres - including his ill-fated backing of the Khmer Rouge before he himself was locked up by the murderous hardline communist movement.
In the Cambodian capital, mourners young and old flocked to the park outside the palace to pay their respects.
“I miss him. I came here to cry and release my sorrow. Under his reign we lived happily, he never hurt anyone,” 58-year-old Sam Sivorn said, in comments that reflect many Cambodians’ impression of the king as a benevolent leader, despite controversies including Sihanouk’s harsh crackdowns on critics.
Dozens of university students, all wearing white shirts with black ribbons pinned to them in a sign of mourning, sang a patriotic song before placing a wreath of yellow and white flowers in front of the palace.
In the absence of an official place where grieving people can pay their respects - the government’s week-long mourning starts on Wednesday - the wreath became an instant shrine, with other mourners kneeling in front of it to pray and lay down white and pink lilies.
“I would like to exchange my life for his. I need my king to come back,” cried 32-year-old Choun Chana.
Many elderly Cambodians fondly recall the 1950s and 1960s as a golden era, when Sihanouk, who ascended the throne in 1941 aged just 18, led the country to independence from France and a rare period of political stability.
But the self-confessed “naughty boy” and prolific amateur filmmaker was also renowned for unpredictability, and he repeatedly switched allegiances as the political climate changed.
After being ousted by US-backed general Lon Nol in 1970, the ever-mercurial royal aligned himself with the communist Khmer Rouge who used him as a figurehead as they seized power before putting him under house arrest in the royal palace.
Their 1975-79 reign of terror killed up to two million people, including five of Sihanouk’s 14 children.
Sihanouk fled to China, which he considered his “second home”, before the Vietnamese invaded and toppled the Khmer Rouge.
He was to spend increasing amounts of time in the country as his health failed and he battled illnesses including cancer, diabetes and heart problems, his devoted sixth wife Monique always at his side.
Condolence messages for Sihanouk poured in from around the world including from China, Japan, the US, former colonial power France and North Korea, whose leader Kim Jong-Un praised Sihanouk’s “unprecedented” friendship with his country.
North Korea’s founder Kim Il-Sung was so close to Sihanouk that he had a palatial residence built for him near Pyongyang in the 1960s.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon issued a statement through his office praising Sihanouk’s “long dedication to his country and his legacy as a unifying national leader”.
Sihanouk was credited with helping to return the country to peace in the 1990s and he triumphantly regained the throne in 1993.
After abdicating for the final time, he received the title of “King-Father” to a people he referred to as his “children”.