Cambodia’s revered ex-king Sihanouk dies in Beijing


Cambodia’s revered ex-king Norodom Sihanouk, whose life mirrored his country’s turbulent past, died in China Monday, sparking nationwide mourning that will see his body lie in state for three months.
Sihanouk, who had been a frequent visitor to Beijing where he received most of his medical treatment, died of a heart attack aged 89, according to his longtime personal assistant Prince Sisowath Thomico. “King Sihanouk did not belong to his family, he belonged to Cambodia and to history,” he told AFP of the former monarch who abruptly quit the throne in October 2004, citing old age and health problems. “It’s painful. I am full of sorrow,” he said.
Sihanouk, whose decades at the centre of Cambodian life encompassed long periods of exile and bloody conflicts including the Khmer Rouge reign of terror, is set to be brought back to his homeland on Wednesday.
His son and current king Norodom Sihamoni and Prime Minister Hun Sen, both appearing tearful, travelled to Beijing to collect the body. The former monarch’s body will be displayed at the royal palace to allowCambodians to pay their respects ahead of a lavish state funeral, government spokesman Khieu Kanharith told AFP. He said some 100,000 people are expected to line the streets of the capital to mark Sihanouk’s final homecoming, which will see the start of a week-long official mourning period.
The charismatic royal, a keen filmmaker and poet whose six marriages lent him a reputation as a playboy, steered his country through decades of painful political and social convulsions, from independence to civil war and invasion. Renowned for unpredictability, Sihanouk repeatedly switched allegiances as the political climate changed, including backing Khmer Rouge guerrillas before he was himself imprisoned by them.
The fanatical communist regime caused the deaths of up to two million people, including five of Sihanouk’s 14 children.
Cambodia woke to the news of their former monarch’s demise on the final day of the annual festival for the dead known as Pchum Ben, when Cambodians honour their deceased ancestors who are believed to emerge to walk the earth during this time.
In the capital Phnom Penh, young and old added their prayers for the dead monarch to tributes for their own relatives. “I felt sad after hearing the news. I came here to pray for my relatives and I also prayed for the (former) king,” 21-year-old Yoan Sophal told AFP at a pagoda where a Buddhist priest led a solemn crowd in a blessing for Sihanouk’s spirit. As evening fell, some 200 mourners, many of them in tears, also gathered outside the palace to listen to dozens of white-robed nuns chanting and praying for Sihanouk’s spirit.
Television stations broadcast continuous footage of Sihanouk, while social networking sites like Facebook buzzed with tributes and shared pictures of the late king. Messages of condolence also poured in from China, Japan, Vietnam and Thailand. Australia-based historian Milton Osborne said Cambodians would likely remember Sihanouk’s time in power “as a golden age, without very much reflection on the deeper, darker aspects of the period when he was in power, when it was very dangerous to say anything critical of him”.