Cambodia cremates former King Sihanouk

Thousands of Cambodians queue to enter the crematorium area where the coffin of late King Norodom Sihanouk (pictured on portrait) rests before his cremation near the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh on 4 February 2013 People from across Cambodia have queued to pay their respects

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The body of Cambodia's former King Norodom Sihanouk has been cremated in the capital, Phnom Penh.

Huge crowds gathered for the ceremony, which marked the final farewell for the man who was a prominent presence during decades of turmoil.

King Sihanouk died in Beijing in October at the age of 89. His embalmed body has been lying in state since then to allow people to pay their respects.

Foreign dignitaries from several nations were attending the ceremony.

Analysis

Cambodia's awful history has offered few figures of authority who engender respect, let alone affection. So it is perhaps fitting that so much of the population has joined the hushed lines snaking past the gilded sarcophagus of former King Sihanouk, a man whose tortuous career was inextricably entwined with the fate of his country.

Quietly, a few people have let it be known they would have pointed out some of Sihanouk's glaring flaws at another time, but not when there is such a powerful public appetite to think fondly of the "Papa King", as he styled himself. Every public comment I have heard talks of his devotion to the country, and of the many good things he did for Cambodia.

But how good were they? Appointed king by the French colonial authorities at the age of 18 in 1941, Sihanouk proved to be a masterful tactician as he confounded their expectations and drove a successful campaign for Cambodian independence in 1955. He then abdicated from the throne, and went on to become prime minister, and then chief of state. He had unchallenged power for more than a decade.

He used it to push through modernisation projects for his country. But many of these proved impractical, and many more were never properly implemented. He tolerated no opposition and harshly repressed anti-government movements, until being ousted by a coup in 1970. He always believed he was indispensible, and some believe this led to his fateful decision to ally himself with the Khmer Rouge, in the early 1970s and in the 1980s.

He was a complex character of many contradictions. The journalist Philip Short has summed him up thus: "An improbable mixture of rage and self-pity, acid and honey, brutality and sarcasm, passion and wit."

Among them were French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault and Prince Akishino of Japan, the brother of the crown prince.

Chanting monks led Buddhist prayers for the former king, before an artillery salute sounded out and fireworks were set off.

His widow, Queen Monique, and the son in whose favour he abdicated, King Norodom Sihamoni, then lit the funeral pyre at the 15-storey-high purpose-built crematorium.

Some of the former king's ashes will be scattered at the confluence of three rivers and the remainder stored in an urn in the royal palace.

The huge crowds who had been filing past the cremation site all day were kept away as the pyre was lit, and TV cameras were covered so the moment was private, the Associated Press reports.

Mixed legacy

Monday's cremation marks the end of several days of commemorations for the former monarch, who died of a heart attack.

On Friday, tens of thousands of people turned out to watch as his golden sarcophagus was paraded through the streets of Phnom Penh to the crematorium.

Since then people from across Cambodia, dressed in mourning colours of white and black, have been lining up to file past his coffin, some holding lotus flowers.

"It's the last day for us all to pay homage to the great hero king and to send him to heaven," King Sihanouk's long-time personal assistant Prince Sisowath Thomico was quoted as saying by AFP news agency.

King Sihanouk remained an influential figure in Cambodia until his death, despite abdicating in 2004.

He became king in 1941 while still a teenager, and led Cambodia to independence from France in 1953.

He was a presence through decades of political and social turmoil in Cambodia, despite long periods of exile overseas.

In later life he emerged as a peacemaker who helped bring stability back to his country, after an ill-fated choice to back the Khmer Rouge in its early years.

His record, says the BBC's Jonathan Head, who is in Phnom Penh, is complex and showed many personal flaws.

But none of that was talked about among the crowds paying their last respects - they were simply mourning the loss of a giant personality, who has been one of the few constants in their tragic history.

"I don't have any words to express the sorrow and suffering I feel when knowing his body will soon disappear," Hin Mal, 79, told the Associated Press news agency.

"I love and respect King Sihanouk like my own father."

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