Cambodia on Friday unveiled a U.S. $1.2 million monument honoring the late King Norodom Sihanouk, a revered leader who guided the country to independence from France and through two wars before backing the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime in a bid to retain power.
The 4.5-meter (15-foot) tall bronze statue of King Sihanouk is housed within a 27-meter- (100-foot-) tall shrine, located in a park on Sihanouk Boulevard in the capital Phnom Penh.
The memorial was made open to the public after eight months of construction Friday in an inauguration ceremony attended by Prime Minister Hun Sen and the late King’s son, current King Norodom Sihamoni, though officials from the country’s main opposition party were noticeably absent.
During the ceremony, Hun Sen said he would “follow in the former King Father’s footsteps toward national reconciliation and unity” and that he would do his best to make Cambodia a great nation that could stand as an equal on the global stage.
He said the country would hereafter mark Oct. 15—the day of King Sihanouk’s death—as a day of remembrance for the former ruler.
“The King Father is our eternal father,” he said. “I appeal to the next generation to pay their respects to the King Father on Oct. 15 each year.”
Kem Sokha, deputy president of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), told RFA’s Khmer Service that the party’s lawmakers did not participate in the inauguration ceremony because invitations from the Royal Palace had only arrived a day earlier, leaving them unable to prepare.
He said that due to heavy flooding during the annual rainy season, which has forced thousands from their homes and left more than 100 dead since mid-September, CNRP lawmakers are currently scattered across the country involved in relief efforts for victims.
Kem Sokha said the CNRP would hold a ceremony to honor the late monarch at the party’s headquarters in Phnom Penh on Oct. 14.
“We will be sending letters to the Royal Palace to pay respect to the former king on Oct. 15,” he said.
King Sihanouk’s death at the age of 89 last October after suffering a heart attack at a hospital in Beijing saw an outpouring of grief for the former ruler, who was beloved by his Cambodian subjects.
Thousands of mourners congregated in the capital in February to witness his cremation ceremony attended by foreign dignitaries, including 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 late king.
King 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.
He was deposed in 1970 and relocated to Beijing where he allied with the communist Khmer Rouge, which overthrew the U.S.-backed Lon Nol regime in 1975.
The group sought to turn Cambodia into an agrarian utopia, but devastated the country through economic mismanagement and purges that led to the death of nearly 2 million people.
King Sihanouk served until abdicating, due to health problems, in 2004 to his son Norodom Sihamoni, who is widely seen to have fewer political motives and less influence over government.
Reported by Den Ayuthya for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.