PHNOM PENH— Nearly one year ago Cambodia’s former head of state, King Father Norodom Sihanouk, died in Beijing at the age of 89. On Friday, hundreds of dignitaries watched as a statue of the father of Cambodian independence was unveiled in central Phnom Penh.
The death in October 2012 of Norodom Sihanouk - a dominant figure in 20th century Cambodia - was a seminal moment for the kingdom.
On October 17 last year, tens of thousands of people lined Phnom Penh’s streets to witness the return of his body from China, where he had been receiving medical treatment. Sihanouk’s body lay in state for three months and was cremated in February in accordance with Buddhist rites.
On Friday, the city inaugurated a giant statue of the late king in a park alongside a boulevard bearing Sihanouk’s name.
Sihanouk’s nephew and long-time personal assistant, Prince Sisowath Thomico, said the statue is a fitting memorial.
“He was the symbol of Cambodia, he was the symbol of the nation. That’s the reason why during his funeral ceremonies so many people came to the Royal Palace, were on the streets, because they felt, each one of them, they felt they were part of the Cambodian nation,” said Thomico.
However, there is one element of the statue that puzzles Thomico; as far as he is concerned, it barely resembles his late uncle.
“I don’t know who it does look like, but it doesn’t look like the King Father. I think there are some disproportions, you know in the body and in the head,” explained Thomico.
Friday’s opening ceremony was attended by Sihanouk’s widow, Queen Mother Monineath, and by the couple’s son, the current monarch, King Norodom Sihamoni, as well as many ruling party politicians.
18-year-old Kom Ratha, a member of Cambodia’s Boy Scouts movement, attended Friday’s ceremony as well.
“It has meaning for people in Cambodia because people always love him - so we make it to remind the people to know him - that he [has] made a lot of things for Cambodia. He has spent his life for Cambodia… I am happy to see this because the statue, it looks like him - it looks like he is alive,” said Ratha.
Norodom Sihanouk’s legacy remains mixed, but many view his rule during the 1950s and 1960s as the country’s Golden Age, as the time Sihanouk secured independence for Cambodia and significantly improved health and education.
However, after parliament ousted Sihanouk in a bloodless coup in 1970, he aligned himself with Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge and called on his people to join the Communists. Thousands obeyed, and five years later the Khmer Rouge took control, ushering in an era of mass killings, starvation and slavery.
That alliance cost Sihanouk and his country dearly, and remained his biggest regret.
Prince Thomico says Sihanouk’s death showed the ruling party how popular the former king still was among ordinary people, and as a result the ruling Cambodian People’s Party has tried to co-opt the symbolism of the monarchy.
Thomico, who joined the opposition party earlier this year, said much of the rationale for erecting the statue is to boost the ruling CPP’s image.
“Well, I would say 99 percent. I don’t believe that the CPP’s really monarchist, royalist. I would rather believe that they are more opportunist than really royalist. So I think that 99 percent of their intentions were to control the monarchy, and what the monarchy symbolizes in Cambodian society,” said Thomico.
Cambodia’s opposition is still boycotting the National Assembly sessions in protest over July elections that they say were deeply flawed. The 55 opposition lawmakers-elect say their absence makes any decision by the 68 ruling party lawmakers unconstitutional. Party leader Sam Rainsy continues to lobby international groups to not recognize the new government led by long serving Prime Minister Hun Sen.