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

Photogallery Americans Celebrate Thanksgiving With Feasts, Festivities

Holiday traditions include turkey dinners, 'turkey trots,' American-style football and New York parade with giant balloons More

Video For Obama, Ferguson Violence is a Personal Issue

With two years left in term, analysts say, president has less to lose by taking conversation on race further More

Video Italian Espresso Expands Into Space

When Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti headed for the ISS, her countrymen worried how she would survive six months drinking only instant coffee More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
To Make A Living, Nairobi Street Vendors Face Legal Hurdles, Physical Violencei
X
Lenny Ruvaga
November 27, 2014 7:05 PM
The Nairobi City Council has been accused of brutality in dealing with hawkers in the Central Business District - in order to stop them from illegally selling their wares on the streets. Lenny Ruvaga has more for VOA News from the Kenyan capital.
Video

Video To Make A Living, Nairobi Street Vendors Face Legal Hurdles, Physical Violence

The Nairobi City Council has been accused of brutality in dealing with hawkers in the Central Business District - in order to stop them from illegally selling their wares on the streets. Lenny Ruvaga has more for VOA News from the Kenyan capital.
Video

Video For Obama, Ferguson Violence is a Personal Issue

Throughout the crisis in Ferguson, Missouri, President Barack Obama has urged calm, restraint and respect for the rule of law. But the events in Ferguson have prompted him to call — more openly than he has before — for profound changes to end the racism and distrust that he believes still exists between whites and blacks in the United States. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Online Magazine Gets Kids Discussing Big Questions

Teen culture in America is often criticized for being superficial. But an online magazine has been encouraging some teenagers to explore deeper issues, and rewarding their efforts. VOA religion reporter Jerome Socolovsky went to this year’s Kidspirit awards ceremony in New York.
Video

Video US Community Kicks Off Thanksgiving With Parade

Thursday is Thanksgiving in the United States, a holiday whose roots go back to the country's earliest days as a British colony. One way Americans celebrate the occasion is with parades. Anush Avetisyan takes us to one such event on the day before Thanksgiving near Washington, where a community's diversity is on display. Joy Wagner narrates
Video

Video Aung San Suu Kyi: Myanmar Opposition to Keep Pushing for Constitutional Change

Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi says she and her supporters will continue pushing to amend a constitutional clause that bars her from running for president next year. VOA's Than Lwin Htun reports from the capital Naypyitaw in this report narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video Mali Attempts to Shut Down Ebola Transmission Chain

Senegal and Nigeria were able to stop small Ebola outbreaks by closely monitoring those who had contact with the sick person and quickly isolating anyone with symptoms. Mali is now scrambling to do the same. VOA’s Anne Look reports from Mali on what the country is doing to shut down the chain of transmission.
Video

Video Ukraine Marks Anniversary of Deadly 1930s Famine

During a commemoration for millions who died of starvation in Ukraine in the early 1930s, President Petro Poroshenko lashed out at Soviet-era totalitarianism for causing the deaths and accused today’s Russian-backed rebels in the east of using similar tactics. VOA’s Daniel Shearf reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video Hong Kong Protests at a Crossroads

New public opinion polls in Hong Kong indicate declining support for pro-democracy demonstrations after weeks of street protests. VOA’s Bill Ide in Guangzhou and Pros Laput in Hong Kong spoke with protesters and observers about whether demonstrators have been too aggressive in pushing for change.
Video

Video US Immigration Relief Imminent for Mixed-Status Families

Tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants in the Washington, D.C., area may benefit from a controversial presidential order announced this week. It's not a path to citizenship, as some activists hoped. But it will allow more immigrants who arrived as children or who have citizen children, to avoid deportation and work legally. VOA's Victoria Macchi talks with one young man who benefited from an earlier presidential order, and whose parents may now benefit after years of living in fear.
Video

Video New Skateboard Defies Gravity

A futuristic dream only a couple of decades ago, the hoverboard – a skateboard that floats above the ground - has finally been made possible. While still not ready for mass production, it promises to become a cool mode of transport... at least over some surfaces. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Impact US Oil Extraction

With the price of oil now less than $80 a barrel, motorists throughout the United States are benefiting from gas prices below $3 a gallon. But as VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the decreasing price of petroleum has a downside for the hydraulic fracturing industry in the United States.
Video

Video Tensions Build on Korean Peninsula Amid Military Drills

It has been another tense week on the Korean peninsula as Pyongyang threatened to again test nuclear weapons while the U.S. and South Korean forces held joint military exercises in a show of force. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from the Kunsan Air Base in South Korea.
Video

Video Mama Sarah Obama Honored at UN Women’s Entrepreneurship Day

President Barack Obama's step-grandmother is in the United States to raise money to build a $12 million school and hospital center in Kogelo, Kenya, the birthplace of the president's father, Barack Obama, Sr. She was honored for her decades of work to aid poor Kenyans at a Women's Entrepreneurship Day at the United Nations.
Video

Video Ebola Economic Toll Stirs W. Africa Food Security Concerns

The World Bank said Wednesday that it expects the economic impact of the Ebola outbreak on the sub-Saharan economy to cost somewhere betweenf $3 billion to $4 billion - well below a previously-outlined worst-case scenario of $32 billion. Some economists, however, paint a gloomier picture - warning that the disruption to regional markets and trading is considerable. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Chaos, Abuse Defy Solution in Libya

The political and security crisis in Libya is deepening, with competing governments and, according to Amnesty International, widespread human rights violations committed with impunity. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video US Hosts Record 866,000 Foreign Students

Close to 900,000 international students are studying at American universities and colleges, more than ever before. About half of them come from Asia, mostly China. The United States hosts more foreign students than any other country in the world, and its foreign student population is steadily growing. Zlatica Hoke reports.

All About America

AppleAndroid