PHNOM PENH - 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.