NEW DELHI -- As word spread Monday that former King Norodom Sihanouk had died of a heart attack in Beijing at age 89, hundreds of thousands of Cambodians gathered in front of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh to mourn.
The impoverished nation, still emerging from decades of war, flew flags at half staff and announced a national week of mourning beginning Wednesday, according to local media. Top leaders, including King Norodom Sihamoni and Prime Minister Hun Sen, flew to Beijing on Monday morning to bring home Sihanouk's body for a traditional funeral at the palace.
Sihanouk reportedly laid out in a letter in January that he wanted to be cremated, with his ashes placed in an urn, preferably made of gold, in a stupa at the palace. His body will be on public display for three months before the funeral, the Phnom Penh Post reported, quoting Sihanouk’s longtime personal assistant Prince Sisowath Thomico.
Sihanouk, a quixotic and mercurial leader, held considerable power in the 1950s and 1960s after helping secure independence from the French. But in the 1970s, he became something of a puppet to the Khmer Rouge during its reign of terror, a period captured in the 1984 Academy Award-winning film “The Killing Fields.”
The controversial leader, whom Cambodians refer to as the King Father, lived in Beijing for most of his last decade in failing health. But his seven decades on the political scene left many Cambodians feeling a great sense of loss, having never known life without him.
“Either love him or hate him, the King Father had been a figure from whom we lived and learned about our collective history,” said Theary C. Seng, founder of the Cambodian Center for Justice and Reconciliation in Phnom Penh, the nation's capital. “His life, his reign, his politics have so infiltrated, impacted and altered the lives of every living Cambodian, young or old, during the 70-plus years in which he played a national role.”
Sihanouk was often condescending, Seng said, as seen by his habit of calling Cambodians his “children.” His policies led to great repression and suffering as well as great laughter and freedom. “He was a man of great ironies,” Seng said. “Cambodia will feel the void of his presence for years to come.”
Much of the country was headed to Cambodia’s 4,000-plus temples on Monday for the last day of a holiday honoring deceased relatives when Cambodians got word of his death, said Youk Chhang, head of the Cambodian Documentation Center in Phnom Penh.
“They were shocked by the news that our king had also passed away,” he added. “Everyone was speechless. At his age, he [still] looked so very healthy.”
Julio A. Jeldres, the king’s official biographer and a member of his staff from 1981 to 1991, said most Cambodians in rural areas credit Sihanouk with promoting national consciousness and preventing the country from becoming entangled in the war that devastated neighboring Vietnam and Laos in the 1960s and ’70s.
During his years as an honorary member of the king’s Cabinet, Jeldres said, he never saw him lose his charm, manners or sense of humor. “He often had to maneuver and use shock treatment to get the best possible result for his people,” Jeldres said.
He said Sihanouk was fully aware in 1970 that the Khmer Rouge didn’t like him, but thought the movement was directed by more moderate leaders rather than the infamous Pol Pot. It was only on a secret visit to Cambodia in 1973 that the exiled king realized “what he thought were ‘pure patriots’ were in fact ‘cruel Stalinists,’” Jeldres said. “But by then it was too late and most of Sihanouk's supporters in the jungle were murdered.”
Filmmaker Kalyanee Mam was screening her recent documentary, “A River Changes Course,” about Cambodia’s Cham Muslim hill tribe minority Monday in Koh Kong province when she heard that Sihanouk had died. Most Cambodians tend to remember Sihanouk the way he portrayed himself in the media, as a fatherly patriot and philanthropist, she said.
“For the common people, I think they see him as a one-dimensional figure,” Mam said. “But to move forward as a nation, we need a more three-dimensional view.”
-- Mark Magnier
Photo: Cambodians pray for former King Norodom Sihanouk during a ceremony at the main gate of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh on Monday. Sihanouk, 89, died Sunday in Beijing. Credit: Mak Remissa / European Pressphoto Agency