Cambodia's former king, Norodom Sihanouk, who played a key role in the country's political scene for decades, has died at the age of 89.
The retired king, known in Cambodia as the 'King Father,' died at 2.25 a.m. on Monday morning, in China's capital Beijing after suffering from a heart attack, Sihanouk's personal aide Prince Sisowath Thomico told DW.
Prince Thomico said the current king, Norodom Sihamoni, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and several senior government officials had left for Beijing immediately. The Queen Mother was already in the Chinese capital.
"His body will be brought back to Cambodia in a very short time, within two or three days," Prince Thomico said, adding that it was hard to predict the consequences of Sihanouk's death.
"He was really beloved by his people," Prince Thomico said. "I think that every Cambodian will be mourning his death."
The news of Sihanouk's death comes during Pchum Ben, an annual festival in Cambodia during which people offer food and prayers for their deceased ancestors.
Norodom Sihamoni took over from his father in 2004
Sihanouk would have turned 90 on October 31. For years he suffered from a litany of health issues, and regularly received medical treatment in China.
He abdicated the throne in 2004 citing health problems, and was succeeded by his son Norodom Sihamoni.
A government spokesperson could not be reached for comment.
Central but controversial
The former king was a central - if controversial and unpredictable - figure in Cambodia for decades, following his initial assumption of the throne in 1941 when the country was still under French colonial rule.
Born in 1922, Sihanouk saw the country through its independence from France in 1953, and abdicated shortly afterward to play a role in Cambodian politics. Some have criticized aspects of Sihanouk's rule after he became "head of state" in 1960, as repressive.
In his 1994 biography of Sihanouk, historian Milton Osborne said that before the final years of his rule Sihanouk's actions and decisions had “contributed to the political malaise that finally tore Cambodia apart.”
Sihanouk first allied himself with Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge
Sihanouk was overthrown in a coup by the Lon Nol regime in 1970. He allied himself with communist Khmer Rouge rebels, who later imposed brutal rule over Cambodia between 1975 and 1979 after they ousted the Lon Nol government.
Three former senior Khmer Rouge are currently on trial at a United Nations-backed war crimes court in Phnom Penh, accused of genocide, crimes against humanity and grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions during that period.
'The end of an era'
When he returned to Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge took over in April 1975, Sihanouk was placed under house arrest in the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh.
After Vietnamese troops overthrew the Khmer Rouge in January 1979, he opposed the new Vietnam-backed regime in Phnom Penh.
He again assumed the throne in 1993.
Julio Jeldres, Sihanouk's official biographer, told DW via email that the former king was “an extremely clever and visionary leader” who had established a rapport with Cambodia's rural population. He said his death marked "the end of an era."