As crowds mourned Cambodia’s former king at the start of his four-day funeral on Friday, exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy pleaded with the government to honor the monarch’s commitment to national reconciliation.
The government had rejected Sam Rainsy's requests to be allowed to return for the funeral.
Hundreds of thousands of mourners dressed in black and white gathered since dawn to pay their respects to the King Father Norodom Sihanouk, who died of a heart attack in October at the age of 89.
A procession carried his coffin in a gold float through the crowd-lined streets of Phnom Penh from the Royal Palace to the funeral pyre where his body will be cremated on Monday.
A revered monarch, Sihanouk steered the country as king and politician through six decades of independence, civil war, the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, his own exile, and democratic transition, before abdicating in favor of his son in 2004.
In a statement paying his last respects to the monarch, National Rescue Party President Sam Rainsy accused Hun Sen’s government of failing to honor Sihanouk’s commitment to national reconciliation.
“I am very sad that some of the Khmer leaders don’t respect the ideas of national reconciliation and unity that the former king encouraged.”
“Those who ignore the former king’s ideas have dragged the country to disaster,” he said.
Sihanouk was seen as a symbol of national reconciliation and unity when after the end of the Khmer Rouge era he retook the throne in 1993, following a U.N.-brokered peace treaty that led to a shaky democratic transition which brought Hun Sen into power.
Hun Sen’s administration has returned Sam Rainsy’s three letters of request to return home for the funeral without providing any explanation, officials of the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) said in October last year.
They interpreted the return of the letters to SRP to mean that the government had rejected Sam Rainsy’s request.
Sam Rainsy, who is living in exile in France, faces 12 years in prison, on charges he says are politically motivated, if he returns to Cambodia.
He is also aiming to return to the country to challenge Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party ahead of elections in July.
A longtime Cambodian politician, he served under Sihanouk as minister of finance for the royalist Funcinpec Party in 1993.
He said in the statement the government should stick to its commitments of national reconciliation and unity.
“This is the last chance for the country’s leaders to prove their true intentions because they have claimed that they would comply with the former king’s ideals.”
The National Rescue Party, an opposition coalition formed in 2012, is challenging the ruling Cambodian People’s Party on a reform platform and pushing for an overhaul of the electoral system.
The government has announced it is releasing 500 prisoners in an amnesty during the four-day cremation period.
Sihanouk is a revered figured in Cambodia, where many elderly people recall the period of his first reign in the 1950s and 1960s as a golden era.
Mourners watching the funeral procession massed near the Royal Palace before dawn, many of them weeping and holding their hands together in a mark of respect.
“I have supported him until he died. He had been with us for a long time,” said villager Him Hoy, 55 who watched the parade.
Vann Von, a volunteer distributing food during the parade, said many of the mourners had traveled from outside of Phnom Penh for the funeral.
“The mourners they are hot and exhausted. They need water so we are giving them water,” he said.
Sihanouk’s body lay in state at the Royal Palace since October after being flown home from Beijing where he was receiving medical treatment when he died.
It will be kept at the cremation site until the cremation ceremony when his wife, Queen Mother Monineath, and King Sihamoni are expected to light the pyre.
Reported by RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.