Thousands of mourners congregated in Phnom Penh on Monday to witness the cremation of their former King Norodom Sihanouk more than two months after his death.
Sihanouk’s widow, Monique, and his son and Cambodia’s current King Norodom Sihamoni set the funeral pyre alight in the evening during a ceremony also attended by foreign dignitaries.
Among regional leaders in attendance were Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, his Thai counterpart Yingluck Shinawatra, and Jia Qingling, a senior leader of the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee.
The cremation, which was accompanied by an artillery salute and fireworks, marked part of a week-long funeral for the beloved former ruler, who died at the age of 89 in October after suffering a heart attack at a hospital in Beijing. Sihanouk’s body had been lying in state in Phnom Penh since his death.
During the ceremony, King Sihamoni expressed his wish that his father would rest peacefully and continue to watch over and protect Cambodia in death.
“Please allow the King [Sihanouk] to rule in heaven near the Buddha,” he said.
“Father, please continue to protect the King of Cambodia and the people forever.”
Sihamoni also pardoned 405 prisoners who had already served two-thirds of their sentences, urging them to take inspiration from the former king’s example and to work for the good of the country.
“I grant you your freedom to return to your families and friends,” the King said.
“I hope you maintain your dignity and become good citizens, working hard to earn your living and to help build the country.”
A woman who attended the ceremony expressed to RFA’s Khmer service her sadness that she would no longer be able to see her former king.
”I pray that the former King’s soul rests in peace,” she said.
“We children won’t be able to see you or listen to your sweet words. I hope that your soul will protect us.”
Born in 1922, Sihanouk led Cambodia through the eras of French colonialism, Japanese rule during World War II, and the Vietnam War—guiding the nation with a nationalist sentiment throughout its tumultuous history during the latter half of the 20th century, while deftly maintaining his claim to the country’s throne.
The former king was known for his often lavish lifestyle, which included a love of film, jazz, cars, food, and women. He married at least five times—though some say he had six wives—and fathered 14 children. But despite his life of excess, he was beloved throughout Cambodia.
Sihanouk was diagnosed with B-cell lymphoma in his prostate in 1993 and again in his stomach in 2005. He was diagnosed with an additional cancer in 2008. The former king also suffered from diabetes and hypertension.
After the cremation, some of Sihanouk's ashes will be scattered at the confluence of the Mekong, Tonle Sap, and Tonle Bassac rivers, while the remainder will be placed in a royal urn at the palace in Phnom Penh.
Funeral organizer Nhiek Bun Chhay told RFA’s Khmer service that the former King’s crematorium will be kept as museum for the people of Cambodia.
“We won’t demolish the crematorium. We will keep it for those people who could not attend the funeral so that they can visit another time,” he said.
The government also plans to erect a seven-meter (23 foot) statue of the former King for public display.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.