Norodom Sihanouk

Mourners mass for homecoming of Cambodian ex-king

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 October, 2012, 3:17pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 18 October, 2012, 8:32pm

Huge crowds of mourners lined the streets of the Cambodian capital on Wednesday waiting to pay their last respects to revered former king Norodom Sihanouk on his final journey home from China.

The mercurial ex-monarch, who steered his country through turbulent decades of war, genocide and finally peace, died of a heart attack in Beijing on Monday aged 89.

His coffin was transported through the Chinese capital earlier on Wednesday to the airport in a bus decorated with yellow ribbons and flowers, while flags flew at half-mast on Tiananmen Square in his honour.

In Phnom Penh, large portraits of a smiling Sihanouk were dotted along the main boulevards, which were filling up with throngs of people, young and old, wearing white shirts and carrying small Cambodian flags.

Authorities said they expected around 100,000 Cambodians to turn out for the late “King-Father” who saw his people as his “children”.

“I hope to see the royal body. I want to see his face one last time,” said Mean Pichavisa, 16, as he sat outside the royal palace cutting up black ribbons for his school friends to pin to their shirts in a symbol of mourning.

The teenager, who shaved his head in honour of Sihanouk’s passing, said he would spend the day there to witness the late monarch’s “historic” homecoming.

“I will remember this day until I die,” he said, as white-robed nuns chanted beside him and workers nearby were hastily repainting the sidewalk and sweeping the road in preparation for the procession.

Sihanouk, who remained popular even after abdicating in favour of his son in 2004 citing old age and ill health, will lie in state at the palace for three months before an elaborate funeral, according to the government.

The arrival of his coffin marks the start of a week-long mourning period during which the government has ordered radio and television stations not to broadcast joyful programmes.

It has also cancelled the festivities for next month’s Water Festival, an annual celebration that usually draws millions of visitors to the capital to enjoy dragon boat races, fireworks and concerts.

Mourners have flocked to the palace in recent days to pay tribute to Sihanouk with lotus flowers, candles and incense sticks, many of them crying as they knelt down to pray in front of the building.

“His death is a great loss for Cambodia,” said 66-year-old Thong Bunsy, who described the former monarch as “a hero”.

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.

The self-confessed “naughty boy” and prolific amateur filmmaker – who abdicated twice, served variously as premier and head of state and spent years in exile – was a shrewd political survivor.

In his most controversial decision, Sihanouk aligned himself with the communist Khmer Rouge after being ousted by US-backed general Lon Nol in 1970.

After seizing power, the Khmer Rouge put Sihanouk 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.

Before the Vietnamese invaded and toppled the Khmer Rouge, Sihanouk took exile in China, which he saw as a second home.

He continued to push for peace, which eventually came in the 1990s. Sihanouk triumphantly regained the throne in 1993 but his influence diminished as strongman premier Hun Sen extended his grip on power.

In recent years, Sihanouk – who battled illnesses including cancer, diabetes and heart problems -- spent long periods of time in China undergoing medical treatment, with his devoted sixth wife Monique always at his side.