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

Turkey's Controversial Reform Bill Giving Investors Jitters

Homeland security reform bill will give police new powers in search, seizure, detention and arrests, while restricting the rights of suspects, their attorneys More

Audio Slideshow In Kenyan Prison, Good Grades Are Path to Freedom

Some inmates who get high marks could see their sentences commuted to non-custodial status More

Ali Regained Title in Historic Fight 40 Years Ago

'The Champ' knocked Foreman out to regain crown he had lost 7 years earlier when US government accused him of draft-dodging and boxing officials revoked his license More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Victorious Secularists Face Challenge to Form Government in Tunisiai
X
Henry Ridgwell
October 30, 2014 11:39 PM
Official results from Tunisia show the Islamist Ennahda party has failed to win the second free election since the so-called "Arab Spring" uprising in 2011. Ennahda, which handed power to a government of technocrats pending the elections, lost out to the secular party Nidaa Tounes. Henry Ridgwell reports from London that the relatively peaceful poll offers some hope in a volatile region.
Video

Video Victorious Secularists Face Challenge to Form Government in Tunisia

Official results from Tunisia show the Islamist Ennahda party has failed to win the second free election since the so-called "Arab Spring" uprising in 2011. Ennahda, which handed power to a government of technocrats pending the elections, lost out to the secular party Nidaa Tounes. Henry Ridgwell reports from London that the relatively peaceful poll offers some hope in a volatile region.
Video

Video Africa Tells its Story Through Fashion

In Africa, Fashion Week is a riot of colors, shapes, patterns and fabrics - against the backdrop of its ongoing struggle between nature and its fast-growing urban edge. How do these ideas translate into needle and thread? VOA’s Anita Powell visited this year’s Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Africa in Johannesburg to find out.
Video

Video Smugglers Offer Cheap Passage From Turkey to Syria

Smugglers in Turkey offer a relatively cheap passage across the border into Syria. Ankara has stepped up efforts to stem the flow of foreign fighters who want to join Islamic State militants fighting for control of the Syrian border city of Kobani. But porous borders and border guards who can be bribed make illegal border crossings quite easy. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video China Political Meeting Seeks to Improve Rule of Law

China’s communist leaders will host a top level political meeting this week, called the Fourth Plenum, and for the first time in the party’s history, rule of law will be a key item on the agenda. Analysts and Chinese media reports say the meetings could see the approval of long-awaited measures aimed at giving courts more independence and include steps to enhance an already aggressive and high-reaching anti-corruption drive. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rules

European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video Kobani Refugees Welcome, Turkey Criticizes, US Airdrop

Residents of Kobani in northern Syria have welcomed the airdrop of weapons, ammunition and medicine to Kurdish militia who are resisting the seizure of their city by Islamic State militants. The Turkish government, however, has criticized the operation. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from southeastern Turkey, across the border from Kobani.

All About America

AppleAndroid