Mourners set to honour Cambodia’s ex-king

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iol pic wld Cambodia Sihanouk Mourned~3

Phnom Penh -

More than one million mourners are expected to line the streets of the Cambodian capital on Friday for a lavish funeral procession for their revered former King Norodom Sihanouk, officials say.

The late monarch's body will be transported atop a golden float shaped like a mythological bird from the royal palace - where he has been lying in state for three months - to a funeral pyre in a city park.

“This is our last homage to say goodbye to the great hero king,” Prime Minister Hun Sen said on national radio this week.

Sihanouk died of a heart attack aged 89 in Beijing on October 15, 2012.

He abdicated in 2004 after steering Cambodia through six decades marked by independence from France, civil war, the murderous Khmer Rouge regime and finally peace.

His body will be kept at the cremation site for religious ceremonies until Monday when his wife and son King Norodom Sihamoni are expected to light the pyre.

Foreign dignitaries - including French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, Japan's Prince Akishino and a host of Asian leaders or high-ranking officials - are due to attend the cremation.

Flags will fly at half-mast. Radio and TV stations as well as entertainment venues have been instructed to refrain from showing “joyful spectacles”, performances and concerts.

Cambodians have been urged to wear black ribbons pinned to their shirts.

“This is the first time in Cambodian history that the country holds such a large funeral for a king,” said Sihanouk's long-time personal assistant Prince Sisowath Thomico.

“The nation does this to show him the same respect he gave to the country,” he told AFP.

After the cremation, Sihanouk's remains will be put in a golden-colour urn that will be placed in a stupa inside the royal palace, he said, in line with the late monarch's wishes.

Large portraits of Sihanouk have been erected along Phnom Penh's streets and outside the royal palace where people have regularly gathered for religious ceremonies since his death.

“When the King-Father is cremated, it will be a big loss for Cambodia. We will lose our spirit,” said Khut Simon, who joined about 100 people for one such ceremony.

“He was a good king who was incomparable,” said the 61-year-old, clutching three pictures of the late monarch to her chest.

Sihanouk was just 18 when placed on the throne in 1941 by French colonial authorities, but quickly defied his patron's expectations of a pliant king.

Many elderly Cambodians fondly recall the 1950s and 1960s as a golden era, when Sihanouk led the country to independence from France and a rare period of political stability.

Hundreds of thousands filled the capital's boulevards when his body returned home from China in October.

A self-confessed “naughty boy” who married six times and fathered 14 children, the former king was also a prolific amateur filmmaker and shrewd political survivor who repeatedly backed different regimes.

He was not immune to controversy, notably aligning himself with the communist Khmer Rouge after being ousted by US-backed general Lon Nol in 1970.

After seizing power, the Khmer Rouge put Sihanouk under house arrest in the royal palace. Their 1975-79 reign of terror killed up to two million people, including five of Sihanouk's own children.

Before the Vietnamese invaded and toppled the Khmer Rouge, Sihanouk took exile in China.

He continued to push for peace, which eventually came in the 1990s. Sihanouk triumphantly regained the throne in 1993 but his influence diminished as strongman premier Hun Sen extended his grip on power.

In recent years, Sihanouk - who battled illnesses including cancer, diabetes and heart problems - spent long periods of time in China undergoing medical treatment, with his devoted sixth wife Monique always at his side. - Sapa-AFP


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