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Asia

Cambodians mourn the late 'King Father'

Cambodians have flocked to the capital to show their grief for former king Norodom Sihanouk. About one million people turned out in Phnom Penh to see the ex-monarch's remains returned to the city's royal palace.

The sea of mourners stood for hours in the sun on Wednesday, pinning black ribbons to their chests and clasping flowers, sticks of incense and portraits of the "King Father," who would have turned 90 on October 31.

Though numbers have varied, local media reported officials as saying about one million people witnessed the procession. The official mourning period lasts until October 23.

Sihanouk's widow Queen Monique, his son King Norodom Sihamoni and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen accompanied the casket as the procession made its way from the airport to the palace.

Sihanouk died early Monday at the age of 89 after suffering from a heart attack in Beijing, where he often received medical treatment. His death occurred during Pchum Ben, an annual festival during which Cambodians make offerings to deceased ancestors.

Buddhist monks line up outside the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh (Photo: Mary Kozlovski/DW)

People from all sections of the Cambodian community turned out to mourn the ex-king

Sihanouk was succeeded by his son Sihamoni when he abdicated the throne in 2004. The former king's elaborate golden casket - adorned with flowers and draped in a royal flag - wound slowly through the city's streets atop a shimmering float in the shape of a bird. Many wept as the procession passed on its way to the palace, where hundreds of Buddhist monks stood in line.

After Sihanouk's casket entered the palace in the early evening, tiny lights illuminated its walls and the street was clouded with incense as people prayed and lit candles under a towering portrait of the former king.

'Nobody can see his smile'

Ek Song Heng, a 23-year-old university student in Phnom Penh who was handing out ribbons at the palace, told DW that Sihanouk obtained "real independence" for Cambodia.

"Pre-school, to primary school, to secondary school, to high school, to university: everybody's talking about the King Father's history. He's the best man," he said. "He's very friendly to all Khmer people, and now nobody can see his smile anymore, so it's quite sad for everybody."

Cambodian flags continued to flutter at half-mast in the capital on Thursday. The government has cancelled annual Water Festival celebrations in Phnom Penh in November due to the death of Sihanouk, whose body will lie in state at the palace.

Prince Sisowath Thomico, a personal aide to Sihanouk, told DW he was "very touched" as he watched the procession on television from within the palace.

A woman holds a portrait of the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk (Photo: Mary Kozlovski/DW)

Mourners carried, pictures, flowers and sticks of incense

"It is just confirmation that His Majesty the King Father was not only loved by his people, but he was also revered," Prince Thomico said, adding that high-level delegations would come to pay their respects to Sihanouk.

Cambodian Information Minister and government spokesperson Khieu Kanharith said the volume of people surprised officials, with the Pchum Ben festival having only just concluded. "We didn't expect that everybody would come back to Phnom Penh," he said.

A key figure

Sihanouk was born in 1922 and was a key figure in Cambodian politics for decades after his initial ascension to the throne in 1941, when the country was under French colonial administration. He led Cambodia through its independence from France in 1953.

Sihanouk stepped down from the throne in 1955 to involve himself in post-independence politics. Some observers have branded aspects of Sihanouk's rule after he became ‘head of state' in 1960 as repressive.

In 1970, he was ousted in a coup by the Lon Nol government, and then allied himself with communist Khmer Rouge rebels who eventually took over Cambodia in April 1975.

Norodom Sihanouk with buddhist monks at 'Big Buddha' (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

As well as religion, the young Sihanouk also became interested in the politics of his country

During the Khmer Rouge's brutal rule between 1975 and 1979, Sihanouk was placed under house arrest in the royal palace. Many of his relatives were killed during that period. Sihanouk ascended the throne again in 1993.

Good memories

Kam Kseang, 68, who is originally from central Kampong Cham province and was among the crowd on Wednesday, told DW he had a good memory of Sihanouk.

"I have a picture of him inside my house," he said. "A lot of people, they said bad [things] about him, but I don't care because I only respect him and I'm very proud of him."

Sihanouk's body will stay at the palace for three months before an elaborate funeral and cremation ceremony.

Author: Mary Kozlovski
Editor: Richard Connor