Tens of thousands of Cambodians gathered in the streets of Phnom Penh today to watch as the body of former King Norodom Sihanouk returned to the nation he dominated for more than half a century.
“Mourners dressed in white lined the 6-mile route to welcome the return of Sihanouk, the flamboyant former monarch who died at 89 of heart failure on Monday in Beijing, his residence since abdicating eight years ago,” Reuters writes.
NPR’s Anthony Kuhn, who has been monitoring the news from Jakarta, tells our Newscast Desk that Sihanouk’s body was accompanied on the trip from China by his son, Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni and Prime Minister Hun Sen.
“He was the father, and we are the children,” Pich Ravy, a vegetable seller who came to the Royal Palace, where Sihanouk will lie in state for three months before being cremated, told The New York Times. “He was one of Cambodia’s greatest kings.”
As the Times recalls:
“King Sihanouk, who was crowned in 1941, had gradually withdrawn from public life in recent years. In his long, colorful and complex rule as king and politician, he was praised by historians for his role in obtaining independence from France and criticized for providing legitimacy to the Khmer Rouge and assisting their rise to power. Some 1.7 million people are estimated to have died under the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s.”
In a report this week for All Things Considered, Anthony noted that:
“Cambodia’s French colonial rulers assumed he would make a good puppet king when they put him on the throne in 1941. Instead he helped Cambodia win its independence in 1953.
“In the 1960s, Sihanouk tried to balance the big powers in a futile attempt to keep Cambodia neutral. He tacitly allowed Vietnamese communists to base troops in eastern Cambodia. He also tacitly allowed the U.S. to covertly bomb those bases if there were no Cambodians in the area. …
“In 1970, Sihanouk’s trusted supporter Marshal Lon Nol ousted him in a coup d’etat. Sihanouk alleged that the CIA was behind the plot.
Sihanouk then allied himself with the communist Khmer Rouge movement to fight Lon Nol. Opposition lawmaker Son Chhay says Sihanouk bears some responsibility for the genocide under the Khmer Rouge’s rule from 1975 to 1979, during which they wiped out up to a quarter of Cambodia’s population. …
“Sihanouk spent most of the Khmer Rouge era as a prisoner in his own palace. He eventually returned to the throne in 1993, but real power has remained in the hands of Hun Sen, the current prime minister. … Sihanouk abdicated the throne to his eldest son, Norodom Sihamoni, in 2004.”