Thousands of tearful mourners have bid a final farewell to Cambodia’s late King Father Norodom Sihanouk in a traditional Buddhist ceremony, which featured all the trappings normally reserved for Angkorian monarchs, and ended three months of official mourning.
King Norodom Sihamoni led official proceedings, with his mother and former Queen Norodom Monineath by his side, as Buddhist clergy performed the last in a series of rites.
Khmers young and old, alongside a who’s who of foreign dignitaries, watched in silence as the pyre was lit. Cannon fire sounded as smoke rose from the purpose-built crematorium, giving closure to a life dominated by 70 years on the international diplomatic stage.
Sihanouk always maintained that he did his best to protect the interests of his country. He was plucked from an obscure family of royals by the colonial French who believed he’d make the most pliable of kings.
After assuming the throne 1941, the young King Sinahouk lived up to those expectations during the Japanese occupation of Cambodia in World War II. But he found his voice soon after and negotiated independence from France in 1953.
As the Vietnam War enveloped Indochina in the 1960s, Cambodia was increasingly at risk. Sihanouk made deals and counter-deals with all sides of the conflict, culminating in a coup in 1970 and the rise of the Khmer Rouge, with whom he forged an uneasy alliance.
Decades of war followed, but Sihanouk would again play a pivotal role in the Paris Peace Talks that eventually led to peace and reestablished his royal credentials among Khmers.
This allegiance was evident soon after his death, at the age of 89, in China on October 15 of last year.
Tens of thousands were on hand when Sihanouk’s body was returned from China, while an untold number more made a pilgrimage to the Royal Palace where incense and candles were lit, and roses adorned portraits of the monarch who many Cambodians believed was semi-divine.
Another 1,000 people wearing the Khmer mourning colors of black and white filed past his coffin inside the palace daily. The outpouring of grief has consumed Phnom Penh and astonished even Sihanouk’s most ardent admirers.
The public response to his passing also serves as a timely reminder to Prime Minister Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party that the royal family remains a potent political force in Cambodian life. This will no doubt be on the premier’s mind as he prepares for elections scheduled for July 28.