PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Cambodians bade goodbye Monday with tears, chanting and fireworks to former King Norodom Sihanouk, their revered “King-Father” who led them through half a century of political tumult that took them into the abyss of genocidal Khmer Rouge rule and back out again.
Hundreds of thousands of Cambodians thronged the capital for the elaborate royal cremation of the maddeningly mercurial leader whose charm often overshadowed missteps that to most of his countrymen have faded away in a fog of nostalgia for a simpler time.
Sihanouk’s elaborate funeral rites — mingling Hindu, Buddhist and animist traditions — were last seen 53 years ago with the death of his father, King Norodom Suramarit. And they may never be seen again in a rapidly modernizing country where the monarchy has lost much of its power and glamor.
After sunset, Sihanouk’s son King Norodom Sihamoni and widow, Queen Mother Norodom Monineath, both weeping, ignited the funeral pyre inside a temple-like, 15-story-high crematorium. Howitzers fired salvos and fireworks lit up the sky when they exited about half-an-hour later.
After the cremation, Sihamoni handed out gifts to some 400 prisoners he had earlier pardoned as part of the mourning for his father, who he said was “in heaven, near the Lord Buddha, forever.”
“May the much revered king support and protect the entire Kingdom of Cambodia and Cambodians forever,” he said.
The cremation took place within a walled compound where 90 Buddhist monks — one for each year of Sihanouk’s life as counted by Cambodians — chanted around the flower-decked, gilt coffin. Only the country’s elite and foreign dignitaries were allowed inside the cremation ground, along with courtiers dressed in pantaloons and soldiers in 19th century-style uniforms with spiked helmets and swords.
Outside, Cambodians young and old gathered to honor and remember the late king.
“I would exchange my life for his if he could live because he was a great leader who brought peace, prosperity for the whole nation,” said Pal Hor, an ailing, 64-year-old man who had come from the distant province of Battambang. He said he shaved his head out of reverence for the deceased monarch.
The $1.2 million crematorium, built just for this funeral, will be dismantled in keeping with Cambodian tradition.
Sihanouk’s body had been lying in state since he died of a heart attack in Beijing on Oct. 15 at the age of 89.
The cremation was the climax of seven days of official mourning for Sihanouk, who was placed on the throne by the French as a teenager. Instead of proving the puppet the colonials had hoped for, Sihanouk went on to win independence, then rule the country both as monarch and head of state until ousted in a 1970 coup. Internationally, he was a leading member of the non-aligned movement and heightened his small country’s profile in the world.
A charismatic figure regarded as a “God-King” by many of his subjects, a prideful Sihanouk sided with the Khmer Rouge against the U.S.-backed government, but after the victory of the ultra-communists in 1975, he and his wife were held prisoners in the palace. Five of his children died during the reign of terror.
A consummate survivor, Sihanouk emerged as a leader of an insurgency fighting a Phnom Penh government installed by the Vietnamese and went on to broker a peace accord that enabled his return to the throne in 1993. He abdicated 11 years later in favor of Sihamoni, a 59-year-old former ballet dancer who had spent most of his life in European artistic circles and has proven a low-keyed constitutional monarch overshadowed by strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Sihanouk’s dark side, particularly his cooperation with the Khmer Rouge and his often brutal suppression of dissent, has been publicly ignored as loudspeakers broadcast eulogies and television stations show old clips of Sihanouk’s triumphs and ebullient personality.
A larger-than-life character, Sihanouk directed films, composed music and led his own jazz band and palace soccer team. His appetite extended to fast cars, food and women, marrying at least five times, some say six, and fathering 14 children.
In the coming days, some of Sihanouk’s ashes will be scattered near the confluence of the four rivers in Phnom Penh, while others will be put in an urn which, according to his wishes, will be placed on the grounds of the Royal Palace near those of his favorite daughter, Kunthea Buppha, who died at the age of 3.
The funeral was attended by French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, Prince Akishino of Japan, leaders of neighboring countries and China’s Jia Qinglin, a senior government adviser and former high-ranking Politburo member.
Representing the United States was Ambassador William E. Todd. The U.S. Embassy did not directly respond to explain such a relatively low-level representation given the long U.S. involvement in Cambodia.
Many Cambodians were upset when President Barack Obama was one of the only leaders attending a regional summit here in November not to pay his respects before Sihanouk’s body. The president had a reportedly tense meeting with Hun Sen at the time, with Obama pressing him on Cambodia’s worsening human rights record.