Cambodians awoke Monday to the news that their country’s revered former king, Norodom Sihanouk, died overnight in Beijing. The 89-year-old leaves behind a colorful but tumultuous legacy. To many Cambodians who mourned his death Monday, he will forever be remembered as the father of a nation.
Sihanouk’s death came amid one of the country’s most important religious festivals, Pchum Ben, when Cambodians pay respect to their ancestors.
At a pagoda in the capital, monks chanted while people made symbolic offerings of food to deceased relatives. Kong Sidoeun waited while his elderly mother prayed. He says the death of the man known to Cambodians as the "King-Father", came as a shock to his entire family.
“I feel shock, and unbelievable … our King-Father passed away. It’s very, very sad. I read this information to my family, and my family, my mother, my relative very shocked,” he said.
For half a century, Cambodia’s history was intertwined with Sihanouk’s. He led the country to independence from France in 1953. But his public support of the Khmer Rouge, following the 1970 coup that unseated him, also bolstered support for the communist movement that would devastate the country five years later.
Still, Sihanouk remains revered by many here. That is particularly true among older Cambodians, who associate him with the country’s post-independence years.
“I heard from my father, my mother and also I observed from the people, nationwide, they think during his period, under his control, the country is very developed. People live with safety during that time," Sidoeun stated. "It mean that in the region, Cambodia is one of developed countries at that time so it’s a very good achievement.”
At some government buildings in the capital, flags were flown at half-mast. Local television stations aired tributes to Cambodia’s former king. Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith says Sihanouk ushered his nation into the modern world.
“You know, when I was a young one. I used to quote his work. Now when I am old, the relationship is more than personal … It’s a great loss for the whole country,” Kanharith added.
Kanharith says officials are making preparations for a royal funeral. Sihanouk’s son and the current monarch, King Norodom Sihamoni, flew to Beijing, along with Prime Minister Hun Sen, to repatriate the King-Father’s remains.