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

Could Nemtsov Threaten Putin in Death as in Life?

Dynamic and debonair opposition leader had supported liberal economic reforms, criticized Russian president's aggression in Ukraine More

Oil Smuggling Highlights Challenges in Shutting Down IS Finances

Pentagon spokesman says Islamic State 'certainly continues to get revenue from the oil industry black market' but that airstrikes have made a dent More

India Focuses on Infrastructure, Investment to Propel Economy

Government expects economy to grow at 8 to 8.5 percent in next fiscal year More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Casei
X
Katherine Gypson
February 25, 2015 11:30 PM
The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Hurt Nascent Illinois Hydraulic Fracturing Industry

Falling oil prices are helping consumers purchase cheaper petroleum at the pump. But that’s made hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” less economically viable for the companies in the United States invested in the process. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports on one Midwestern town that was hoping to change its fortunes by cashing in on the next big U.S. oil boom.
Video

Video Fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan Fuels Mass Displacement

Heavy fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan state is causing hundreds of thousands to flee into uncertain conditions. Local aid organizations estimate as many as 400,000 civilians have been internally displaced since the conflict began more than three years ago, while another 250,000 have fled across the border to refugee camps in South Sudan. VOA's Adam Bailes reports.
Video

Video Lao Dam Project Runs Into Opposition

A Lao dam project on a section of the Mekong River is drawing opposition from local fishermen, international environmental groups and neighboring countries. VOA's Say Mony visited the region to investigate the concerns. Colin Lovett narrates.
Video

Video A Filmmaker Discovers Her Biracial Identity in "Little White Lie

Lacey Schwartz grew up in an upper middle-class Jewish family, in a town in upstate New York where almost everyone she knew was white. She assumed that she was, as well. Her recent documentary, Little White Lie, tells the story of how she uncovered the secret of her true racial background. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more on the film.
Video

Video Deep Under Antarctic Ice Sheet, Life!

With the end of summer in the Southern hemisphere, the Antarctic research season is over. Scientists from Northern Illinois University are back in their laboratory after a 3-month expedition on the Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest floating ice sheet. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, they hope to find clues to explain the dynamics of the rapidly melting ice and its impact on sea level rise.
Video

Video US-Cuba Normalization Talks Resume Friday

Negotiations aimed at normalizing diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba resume Friday. On the table: lifting a half-century trade embargo and easing banking and travel restrictions. There's opposition in Congress, but some analysts say there may be sufficient political and economic incentives in both nations for a potential breakthrough this year. VOA's Mil Arcega reports.
Video

Video Pakistan's Deadline For SIM Registration Has Cellphone Users Scrambling

Pakistani cell phone users have until midnight Thursday to register their SIM cards, or their service will be cut off. While some privacy experts worry about government intrusion, many Pakistanis are just worried about keeping their phone lines open. VOA Deewa reporter Arshad Muhmand has more from Peshawar.
Video

Video Myanmar Warns Factory Workers to End Strikes

Outside Myanmar's main city Yangon, thousands of workers walked off their jobs earlier this month demanding a doubling of their wages, pay raises after a year and input from labor unions on industrial regulations. Since Friday, the standoff has grown more tense as police moved in to disrupt the sit-ins, resulting in clashes that injured people from both sides. VOA correspondent Steve Herman visited industrial zones which have become a focus of Myanmar's fledgling workers rights movement.
Video

Video Oscar Winners Do More Than Thank the Academy

The Academy Awards presentation is Hollywood’s night to reward the best movies from the previous year. It’s typically a lot of glitter, a lot of thank you’s, a lot of speeches. But many of this year’s speeches carried messages beyond the thank you's. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti takes a look.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More