Cambodia begins mourning period

Oct. 19, 2012 at 9:08 AM
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PHNOM PENH, Cambodia, Oct. 19 (UPI) -- Cambodia, the country which suffered several million deaths under the brief but brutal Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s, is now in an official weeklong state of mourning for its former king.

An estimated 100,000 mourners lined the 6-mile route through the capital Phnom Penh to catch a glimpse of the ornate float bearing the equally ornate coffin of Norodom Sihanouk who died in Beijing at age 90 this week.

People trailed flags and portraits of the king and stopped to pin thin black ribbons and coarse patches of cloth onto blazing white shirts as a sign of respect to the "King Father," as Sihanouk was known, the Phnom Penh Post reported.

The former king had been in poor health for several years and died at a hospital in Beijing after suffering a heart attack.

Earlier, 90 Buddhist monks met an Air China flight at the airport and the body was taken in a swan-shaped funeral vehicle to the Royal Palace.

Despite it being a very hot day, students, the elderly, monks, families and foreigners gathered in what shade they could find to view the procession, the Post report said.

"People have shown their attachment to him today," Seng Valath, an undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Interior, said.

"For many people, this is their last chance to say goodbye," he said.

"It is a great loss for Cambodia. One of the former king's unforgettable achievements for the nation is the independence he gained from France in 1953," said Him Chhem, minister of culture and fine arts.

Flags are flying at half-mast and television and radio stations have canceled regular broadcasting to run documentaries on Sihanouk, his life and times.

But business was brisk for street vendors who wandered the parks selling flowers, incense, candles and pictures of Sihanouk. One vendor said they were selling around 200 pictures a day, double the normal number and at double the normal price

But Cambodians will have three months to view his body which will lie in state before it receives a lavish cremation according to Buddhist ritual.

Embalmers, with Chinese help, already are at work preparing the body, a report by the Global Times, based in Beijing, said.

The process is expected to be similar to the one that preserved the body of the Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong who died in the 1970s, the Global Times said.

Even though Sihanouk abdicated in 2004 citing old age and ill health, he was more popular than his son, Norodom Sihamoni, 59, who took over the royal reins, a report by The Economist, based in London, said.

Sihanouk's popularity was due mainly to his leading the country to independence from France and then through a period of stability into the 1960s.

But the peace was the quiet before the storm of the wars in former Indochina that engulfed Cambodia as well as Laos and Viet Nam by 1970.

His popularity survived his backing of the deadly Khmer Rouge regime from 1975-1979 which left 2 million dead in what became known as the Killing Fields.

His son, a former ballet dancer, leads a quiet royal life based around a constitutional monarchy role, with little political power but some spiritual authority. He opens festivals and oversees Buddhist ceremonies, The Economist said.

But the son-king may be drawn into politics as the country opens up to investment and resentment grows among ordinary Cambodians against their loss of traditional life.

Already there is unrest about a so-called land-grab resulting from the forcible eviction of hundreds of thousands from their land in order to sell it off, often to foreign speculators. This policy has enriched people well-connected to the government.

Increasingly, the authorities have been cracking down on environmentalists, journalists and villagers protesting against government policies. They have been jailed, shot at and, in some cases, killed amid confrontations with the police and the army, The Economist reported.

If Sihamoni, who has represented his country as ambassador to the United Nations cultural organisation, UNESCO, decides to move into the political arena, he will have a formidable adversary, Hun Sen, the prime minister.

Hun is said to have had a frosty relationship with King Sihanouk because of his interference in politics, the BBC reported at the time of Sihanouk's abdication in 2004.

Hun Sen, who has been at the helm of Cambodian politics for more than 30 years, may welcome the death of Sihanouk, a report by Radio Free Asia said.

"This is a new era for Hun Sen," Lao Moung Hay, a former civil servant and professor of law and economics, told the New York Times. "There is no force to restrain him anymore -- there are risks for the country."

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