News / Asia

    Cambodia Prepares for Former King's Cremation

    Vendors sell pictures of the royal family, as the country prepares for the funeral of Cambodia's late King Norodom Sihanouk, near the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, January 31, 2013.
    Vendors sell pictures of the royal family, as the country prepares for the funeral of Cambodia's late King Norodom Sihanouk, near the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, January 31, 2013.
    Robert Carmichael
    Cambodian authorities have completed preparations for the cremation Monday of the country’s former king, Norodom Sihanouk, who died in October at age 89. Sihanouk was the father of Cambodia’s independence, yet his successes remain tarnished by his 1970 alliance with the Khmer Rouge.

    Reluctant king

    When 19-year-old Norodom Sihanouk was placed on the Cambodian throne by France in 1941, few people expected much. The French mistakenly believed he would be compliant. Many Cambodians did not know much about him. Hardly any would have predicted that one day he would be seen as the country’s dominant political figure.

    Attaining the throne was a surprise for Sihanouk, says his nephew, Prince Sisowath Thomico, who was close to Sihanouk for much of his life.

    “He always wanted to be a literature professor," he said. "He wanted to teach French, Latin, Greek because he loved those topics. He’s been thrown in the political arena by the French, and he couldn’t do anything else except assume his responsibilities as the king of Cambodia. But he never wanted to become king.”

    Elaborate funeral planned

    On Friday, the body of the reluctant former king will be taken from the Royal Palace, where it has been lying in state, and paraded through the city to the funeral site.

    • Mourners offer prayers to the late former Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk in Phnom Penh, January 31, 2013.
    • The royal funeral convoys are prepared for late former King Norodom Sihanouk in Phnom Penh, January 31, 2013.
    • Buddhist monks offer prayers to late former King Norodom Sihanouk ahead of his cremation in front of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, January 26, 2013.
    • Cambodian honor guards welcome the body of the late former King Norodom Sihanouk at Phnom Penh International Airport, October 17, 2012. (Heng Reaksmey/VOA)
    • Bou Kry, one of Cambodia's two Buddhist patriarchs, sits in a royal truck leading the procession that carries the coffin and body of late former King Norodom Sihanouk from the airport to the Royal Palace.(Heng Reaksmey/VOA)
    • A Buddhist monk holds flowers as he joins others waiting for the coffin of the former king Norodom Sihanouk to arrive at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh October 17, 2012.
    • Thousands of mourners gather at the gates of the Royal Palace minutes after the coffin of former king Norodom Sihanouk arrived in Phnom Penh October 17, 2012.
    • Cambodian royal officers carry the coffin of former king Norodom Sihanouk on a royal truck during its arrival at Phnom Penh international airport October 17, 2012.
    • Thousands of mourners pray at the gates of the Royal Palace after the coffin of former king Norodom Sihanouk entered in Phnom Penh October 17, 2012.
    • People pray as they see the coffin of former king Norodom Sihanouk on a royal truck along a street in Phnom Penh October 17, 2012.
    • Mourners burn incense and offer prayers at the Royal Palace displaying a portrait of their former King Norodom Sihanouk in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, October 17, 2012.

    On Monday, Sihanouk’s body will be cremated in an elaborate Buddhist ceremony. Authorities expect more than a million Cambodians will travel to Phnom Penh to watch.

    Prince Thomico says he is impressed by the effort the government has made.

    "It never happened before," he said. "It did not happen for King Norodom, for King Sisowath, for King Monivong or even for King Suramarit, who was the father for King Sihanouk. It did not happen. We did not have that huge crowd and that huge organization.”

    Part of the reason is that Sihanouk was a far more significant figure. Many people see his biggest success as achieving independence from France in 1953, says Justin Corfield, who has published three books on Cambodia.

    "Even though nowadays we take Cambodia’s independence for granted, and its territorial integrity for granted, that wasn’t so much necessarily going to be the case in the late 40s and early 50s," said Corfield.

    A king turned politician

    In 1955, having achieved independence, Sihanouk abdicated and plunged into a life of politics. For the next 15 years, as prime minister and then head of state, he was the country’s dominant politician.

    However, his affection for his people was coupled with an intolerance of dissent. Some still recall the brutal methods his administration used to retain political control.

    Yet many look back on the fifties and the early sixties as the country’s golden age, a time when people had enough to eat and the country was at peace.

    Royal biographer Ambassador Julio Jeldres was close to the former king for decades. He says Cambodia’s frontiers were at the heart of everything Sihanouk did.

    "I think that his main objective in life was to keep Cambodia’s territorial integrity protected, and he worked hard at that, including allying himself with people that later on were going to betray him," he said. 

    • Cambodia's King Norodom Sihanouk waves at Phnom Penh airport prior to his departure for China, January 19, 2004.
    • Kong Sam Ol, right, holds King Sihanouk to help him greet people before boarding an airplane at Phnom Penh international airport, Cambodia, January 19, 2012.
    • Former King Sihanouk and his son and successor King Norodom Sihamoni walk in procession at the start of coronation ceremonies at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, October 29, 2004.
    • Then King Sihanouk and Queen Monique greet well-wishers from a limousine after a ceremony ending three official days celebrating Cambodia's 50 years of Independence in capital Phnom Penh, November 11, 2003.
    • Then King Sihanouk, center, is helped down stairs at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, with help from Buddhist leaders attending the opening ceremonies of the World Buddhist Conference, December 5, 2002.
    • Then King Sihanouk bids goodbye to a Buddhist monk at a temple in Siem Reap, northern Cambodia, September 1,1997.
    • King Sihanouk gives a kiss to say good-bye to well-wishers as Queen Monique prays upon their departure for Beijing at Siem Reap airport, October 25, 1997.
    • Swiss President Jean Pascal Delamuraz, left, and first lady Catherine are introduced as then Cambodian King Sihanouk, right, and Queen Monique look on upon their arrival at Phnom Penh airport ,October 12, 1996.
    • Former King Sihanouk smiles at an unknown location, July 29, 1941.

    Khmer Rouge and betrayals

    That first betrayal, as Sihanouk saw it, came In March 1970. While Sihanouk was out of the country, his government ousted him in a bloodless coup. He flew to China and was persuaded to back Cambodian Communists who until that point had been his enemies.

    It was Sihanouk who years earlier had christened them the Red Khmers, or Khmer Rouge.

    Sihanouk called on Cambodians to join with him and the Khmer Rouge to fight against the usurping government in Phnom Penh, and many did.  In 1975, the Khmer Rouge took power. By the time they were ousted in 1979, 2 million Cambodians were dead.

    The secretive Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot hid behind more moderate men, says Julio Jeldres, who is adamant that Sihanouk would never have joined them had he known who their real leaders were.

    Jeldres says Sihanouk’s decision also was motivated by the guarantee that North Vietnam gave him in Beijing that it would respect Cambodia’s borders.

    "And for Sihanouk that was very important because he was convinced that North Vietnam was going to win the war against the Americans, and he could not afford to have an unfriendly North Vietnamese government at his borders," he said.

    Sihanouk’s alliance cost him and his country dearly, and remained his biggest regret. During those years, Sihanouk was a virtual prisoner in his palace in Phnom Penh.

    While some of Sihanouk’s successes are easily lost under the shadow of the Khmer Rouge, writer Justin Corfield says that during his reign he vastly improved education and health, and helped keep Cambodia independent.

    Monarchy future

    In 1993, Sihanouk was crowned king of Cambodia for a second time when the country’s political fabric was stitched back together after the Cold War ended.

    But by then, the role had changed. Cambodia’s constitutional monarchy meant Sihanouk reigned but did not rule. Jeldres says that proved frustrating for a man more used to a hands-on style of interceding. In 2004, Sihanouk abdicated again and was replaced by his son Sihamoni.

    So where does the death of Sihanouk leave the monarchy? Prince Thomico says, "The last political decision of King Sihanouk was to abdicate in order to ensure now the future of the monarchy, and I think that he succeeded in that field."

    Prince Thomico says the Cambodian people like and accept their current monarch, King Sihamoni. That gives him confidence that - even with Sihanouk gone - for now, at least, Cambodia’s monarchy is secure.


    • Mourners offer prayers to the late former Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk in Phnom Penh, January 31, 2013.
    • The royal funeral convoys are prepared for late former King Norodom Sihanouk in Phnom Penh, January 31, 2013.
    • Buddhist monks offer prayers to late former King Norodom Sihanouk ahead of his cremation in front of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, January 26, 2013.
    • Cambodian honor guards welcome the body of the late former King Norodom Sihanouk at Phnom Penh International Airport, October 17, 2012. (Heng Reaksmey/VOA)
    • Bou Kry, one of Cambodia's two Buddhist patriarchs, sits in a royal truck leading the procession that carries the coffin and body of late former King Norodom Sihanouk from the airport to the Royal Palace.(Heng Reaksmey/VOA)
    • A Buddhist monk holds flowers as he joins others waiting for the coffin of the former king Norodom Sihanouk to arrive at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh October 17, 2012.
    • Thousands of mourners gather at the gates of the Royal Palace minutes after the coffin of former king Norodom Sihanouk arrived in Phnom Penh October 17, 2012.
    • Cambodian royal officers carry the coffin of former king Norodom Sihanouk on a royal truck during its arrival at Phnom Penh international airport October 17, 2012.
    • Thousands of mourners pray at the gates of the Royal Palace after the coffin of former king Norodom Sihanouk entered in Phnom Penh October 17, 2012.
    • People pray as they see the coffin of former king Norodom Sihanouk on a royal truck along a street in Phnom Penh October 17, 2012.
    • Mourners burn incense and offer prayers at the Royal Palace displaying a portrait of their former King Norodom Sihanouk in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, October 17, 2012.

    You May Like

    Ethiopia's Anti-terrorism Law: Security or Silencing Dissent?

    Yonatan Tesfaye was detained in December 2015 on charges under Ethiopia's Anti-Terrorism Proclamation; eleven statements from his Facebook page were used as evidence

    Egypt Orders Trial for Journalists Charged With Harboring Reporters

    Order targets journalists' union chief Yehia Qalash, Khaled al-Balshy and Gamal Abdel Rahim for allegedly spreading false news, harboring fugitive colleagues

    Nigerian Oil Production Falls as Militant Attacks Take Toll

    Country no longer Africa's petroleum king due to renewed militancy in its oil-producing region

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    New Chapter for Tunisia's Ennahdai
    X
    Lisa Schlein
    May 31, 2016 1:56 PM
    Tunisia’s moderate Islamist Ennahda party says it is separating its religious and political activities in a broader bid to mark its so-called Muslim Democratic identity. The move appears to open a new chapter for a party that bounced back from the political wilderness of Tunisia’s pre-revolution days to become a key player in the North African country, and a member of the current coalition government. From Tunis, Lisa Bryant takes a look at how Tunisians are viewing its latest step.
    Video

    Video New Chapter for Tunisia's Ennahda

    Tunisia’s moderate Islamist Ennahda party says it is separating its religious and political activities in a broader bid to mark its so-called Muslim Democratic identity. The move appears to open a new chapter for a party that bounced back from the political wilderness of Tunisia’s pre-revolution days to become a key player in the North African country, and a member of the current coalition government. From Tunis, Lisa Bryant takes a look at how Tunisians are viewing its latest step.
    Video

    Video New Mobile App Allows Dutch Muslims to Rate their Imams

    If a young Dutch-Moroccan app developer has his way, Muslims in the Netherlands will soon be able to rate their imams online. Mohamed Mouman says imams rarely get feedback from their followers. He believes his app can give prayer leaders a better picture of what's happening in their communities — and can also keep young people from being radicalized. Serginho Roosblad reports from Amsterdam.
    Video

    Video Moscow Condemns NATO Plans to Beef Up Defense in Eastern Europe, Baltics

    NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Monday an upcoming "landmark summit" will enhance the alliance's defensive and deterrent presence in eastern Europe and the Baltics. He is visiting Poland ahead of the NATO Summit in Warsaw. Zlatica Hoke reports
    Video

    Video Tech Startups Showcase Wares at Amsterdam Conference

    More than 20,000 tech enthusiasts, entrepreneurs and lovers of digital technology came together in Amsterdam recently at the Next Web Conference to discuss the latest developments in digital technology, look to the future and, of course, to connect. In recent years, there has been an explosion of so-called startup businesses that have created devices and applications that have changed the way we live; but, as Serginho Roosblad reports for VOA, there are pitfalls for such startups as well.
    Video

    Video US Military's Fallen Honored With Flags

    Memorial Day is a long weekend for most Americans. For some, it is the unofficial start of summer -- local swimming pools open and outdoor grilling season begins. But Memorial Day remains true to its origins -- a day to remember the U.S. military's fallen.
    Video

    Video Rolling Thunder Rolls Into Washington

    The Rolling Thunder caravan of motorcycles rolled into Washington Sunday, to support the U.S. military on the country's Memorial Day weekend
    Video

    Video A New Reading Program Pairs Kids with Dogs

    Dogs, it is said, are man's best friend. What some researchers have discovered is that they can also be a friend to a struggling reader. A group called Intermountain Therapy Animals trains dogs to help all kinds of kids with reading problems — from those with special needs to those for whom English is a second language. Faiza Elmasry has more on the New York chapter of R.E.A.D., or Reading Education Assistance Dogs, in this piece narrated by Faith Lapidus.
    Video

    Video Fan Base Grows for Fictional Wyoming Sheriff Longmire

    Around the world, the most enduring symbol of the U.S. is that of the cowboy. A very small percentage of Americans live in Western rural areas, and fewer still are cowboys. But the fascination with the American West is kept alive by such cultural offerings as “Longmire,” a series of books and TV episodes about a fictional Wyoming sheriff. VOA’s Greg Flakus recently spoke with Longmire’s creator, Craig Johnson, and filed this report from Houston.
    Video

    Video Chinese-Americans Heart Trump, Bucking National Trend

    A new study conducted by three Asian-American organizations shows there are three times as many Democrats as there are Republicans among Asian-American voters, and they favor Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. But one group, called Chinese-Americans For Trump, is going against the tide and strongly supports the business tycoon. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee caught up with them at a Trump rally and reports from Anaheim, California.
    Video

    Video Reactions to Trump's Success Polarized Abroad

    What seemed impossible less than a year ago is now almost a certainty. New York real estate mogul Donald Trump has won the number of delegates needed to secure the Republican presidential nomination. The prospect has sparked as much controversy abroad as it has in the United States. Zlatica Hoke has more.
    Video

    Video F-35 Fighter Jet Draws Criticisms as Costs Mount

    America’s latest fighter plane, the F-35, has been mired in controversy. Critics cite cost, faulty design, and the attempt to use it to fill multiple roles. Even the pilot’s helmet is controversial. VOA’s Bernard Shusman reports from New York.
    Video

    Video Concerns Over Civilian Suffering as Iraqi Forces Surround Fallujah

    Thousands of residents are trapped inside the IS-held city ahead of a full scale Iraqi offensive aimed at retaking it.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora