PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Leaders from Cambodia’s three neighbors paid their final respects to the country’s late former king, Norodom Sihanouk, who was the last of Asia’s postwar independence pioneers.
Sihanouk died Monday in Beijing, where he spent much of his time after abdicating in 2004 in favor of his son Norodom Sihamoni. He was 89 and in ill health. His body was returned to his homeland on Wednesday.
Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung was the first of the three to pay homage on Friday at the Royal Palace in the capital, where Sihanouk’s body lies in state. Vietnam is Cambodia’s historical enemy but a major ally of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government.
Delegations led by Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong of Laos and Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra of Thailand — with which Cambodia has sometimes had strained relations — later paid their respects.
All three leaders held talks separately with Hun Sen.
A week of official mourning was declared for the late king, during which Cambodian and foreign dignitaries have been visiting the palace. On Thursday night, state television broadcaster TVK aired a video of Hun Sen leading government ministers by Sihanouk’s coffin and a portrait of the late monarch.
King Sihamoni and Sihanouk’s widow, Queen Mother Monineath Sihanouk, both in traditional white mourning clothes, stood alongside the coffin, greeting the visitors.
The former king’s body will lay in state for three months — during which the public will be allowed to pay respects — before it is cremated according to Buddhist tradition.
About 300 ordinary citizens, many from the countryside, lit candles Friday and burned incense in front of a giant portrait of Sihanouk displayed on the main facade of the palace. Buddhist monks and nuns chanted prayers by a pile of flowers, while funeral music drifted from within the palace walls.
First crowned king in 1941, Sihanouk led a successful peaceful postwar campaign for total independence from France, and stepped down in 1953 to pursue a political career. He became head of state, and during the Cold War tried to steer his country on a neutralist course.
However, his country became enmeshed in the conflict in neighboring Vietnam, leading to his first fall from power and culminating in the murderous rule of the communist Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s, during which about 1.7 million of his countrymen perished.
His legacy became tainted because in an effort to regain his political influence, he made common cause with Khmer Rouge, though the regime never yielded power to him and killed five of his children.
After the Khmer Rouge were ousted and Sihanouk regained the throne in 1993, he rebuilt his reputation as the conscience of his country. But Hun Sen, a tough and canny politician who had defected from the Khmer Rouge, undercut his influence.