In Phnom Penh on 4 February 2013, the final chapter in the life of one of Asia’s most extraordinary characters will be played out – the cremation of the former King of Cambodia, Norodom Sihanouk. The fact that the King Father as he is known, has been dead for three months is just another facet of a long, fascinating and at times, controversial life.
Sihanouk died in October 2012 of heart failure in a hospital in Beijing. For three months his embalmed body has been on display at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. During this time his portrait has also hung from the Moonlight Pavilion at the Royal Palace.
The final touches to Sihanouk’s crematorium in Phnom Penh were only completed at the end of January. Work on the crematorium has continued around the clock for two months to get it ready. The site chosen to feature the cremation was Veal Preah Maru park near the National Museum and running along Street 178.
It’s a huge project costing US$1.2 million. The funeral and cremation will involve more than 10,000 civilian and military police, bodyguards and officials. The cremation will be in the Cambodian and Buddhist tradition. Sihanouk asked that his ashes be put in an urn, preferably made of gold, and placed in a stupa at the Royal Palace.
At the site, tourists wander past snapping photos of the crematorium. Punters at nearby Rory’s Pub rue their “favourite park” has been taken. Every evening during construction, a truck would circle the park blasting out clouds of smoke, presumably for mosquitoes, though the area has virtually none. Everyone was forced to cover their face and put a beer mat over drinks to avoid choking or being poisoned.
In fitting with much of Sihanouk’s life, controversy mires the project for his death. The company awarded the contract, Vispan, is owned by the daughter of a Royal Palace Minister, though the government defended this decision saying there was no time for a public bidding process.
Norodom Sihanouk was the revered and often mercurial former king and independence hero who helped steer Cambodia through five decades of war, genocide and turmoil. Academic and long-time Cambodia watcher, Milton Osborne, chose the title of his biography of Sihanouk carefully, ‘Prince of Light, Prince of Darkness’ and with good reason.
Sihanouk was a cunning political survivor and a colourfully eccentric playboy with a passion for film directing. He sang love songs at elaborate state dinners, brought his French poodle to peace talks, and charmed such foreign dignitaries as Jacqueline Kennedy and Charles de Gaulle. Sihanouk ruled as a feudal-style absolute monarch but called himself a democrat.
He held so many positions in government, that the Guinness Book of World Records identifies him as the politician who has occupied the world’s greatest variety of political offices. These included two terms as king, two as sovereign prince, one as president, two as prime minister, and one as Cambodia’s non-titled head of state, as well as numerous positions as leader of various governments-in-exile.
Throughout a life of shifting loyalties and sometimes exile, Sihanouk saw his Southeast Asian nation transformed from colony to kingdom, from US-backed regime to US-bombing zone, from Khmer Rouge killing field to what it remains today — a fragile democracy.
When the murderous Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975, he was reviled as a collaborator. Yet he himself wound up a prisoner and lost five of his children to the regime (in total he had 16 children to six wives). Later, in the 1990s — after a UN-brokered deal to end Cambodia's long civil war — he re-made himself as constitutional monarch and peacemaker.
Born on 31 October 1922, Sihanouk enjoyed a privileged childhood in French colonial Indochina. In 1941, the French crowned him king ahead of other relatives closer in line to the throne because they thought the prince would be easy to control.
They were the first of many to underestimate him, and by 1953 the French were out. In 1955, Sihanouk stepped down from the throne, organised a mass political party and went on to hold various positions as head of state. Through those years, he steered Cambodia toward uneasy neutrality at the height of the Cold War and was founder of the Non-Aligned Movement.
In 1965, he severed relations with America as their involvement in the war in Vietnam escalated. But by 1969, worried about increasing Vietnamese communist use of Cambodian soil, he made fresh advances to America and turned against China.
Sihanouk's top priority was to keep Cambodia out of the war, but he failed. US B-52s carpet bombed North Vietnamese forces in Cambodia with frightening consequences, and his protests were ignored.
Internally, Cambodia was a one-man show. Sihanouk's sharpest critics accused him of running a medieval state as an ancient Angkor ruler reincarnated in Western dress. He referred to Cambodians as his “children”.
Sihanouk was a ruthless politician, talented dilettante and untiring playboy, caught up in endless, almost childlike enthusiasms. He made movies, painted, composed music, fielded a palace football team and led his own jazz band. His large appetite extended to fast cars, food and women. Still, many worshipped Sihanouk as god-like.
Following his overthrow in March 1970 by the US-backed Lon Nol regime (1970-1975), Sihanouk spent a lonely but lavish exile in China.
Seeking to regain the throne, he joined the Khmer Rouge-dominated rebels after his overthrow. They numbered only a few hundred, but Sihanouk gave them a legitimacy they had not previously enjoyed.
The alliance left Sihanouk open to subsequent criticism that he opened the way for the Khmer Rouge holocaust. But his relations with the rebels were always uneasy. He once said the Khmer Rouge “Don’t like me at all” and when they’re done “they will spit me out.”
In 1975, the Khmer Rouge seized power and Sihanouk returned home. He was promptly arrested and sentenced to death by the former rebels. Only the personal intervention of Chinese leader Zhou Enlai saved him.
With Sihanouk confined to the Royal Palace, the Khmer Rouge ran an ultra-radical Maoist regime from 1975 to 1979, emptying the cities to create a vast forced labour camp. Up to an estimated two million Cambodians were executed or died of disease and hunger under their rule.
Vietnam invaded in late 1978 overthrowing the Khmer Rouge. Freed as the Vietnamese advanced on Phnom Penh, Sihanouk found exile in Beijing but mostly in North Korea, whose leader, Kim Il-Sung, he had met and befriended in 1961.
From there, he headed an unlikely coalition of three guerrilla groups fighting the Vietnamese-installed puppet government. The war lasted a decade.
Sihanouk remained a unifying figure, though, going on to lead the UN-supported interim structure that ran Cambodia until 1993 elections. The same year, Sihanouk re-ascended the throne in a traditional Khmer coronation.
Restored to his palace, he travelled the countryside surrounded by stone-faced bodyguards on loan from North Korea. Sihanouk ever the chameleon, assumed a new role as beloved father of the country — even though many adoring, older Cambodians expressed hope for a return of his previous direct rule. But the bright promise of the elections soon faded. Four years after thepolls, Hun Sen launched a violent coup, and he remains in power to this day.
In the last years of his life, Sihanouk's profile and influence waned. While many people in the countryside still held him in reverence, others regarded him as a figure of the past and one partly responsible for Cambodia's tragedy. Many Cambodians, also, are too young to have emotional ties to a man who in the past two decades has been overshadowed by Hun Sen, the country's current political strongman.
Rarely at a loss for words and issuing comments on all kinds of things, which for a time made him the world’s most prolific royal blogger. Most of his writing was literally in his own hand — his site featured images of letters, usually in French in a cramped cursive script, along with handwritten marginalia to news clippings that caught his interest.
His production tailed off, however, as he retreated further from the public eye, spending more and more time under doctor's care in Beijing. The hard-living Sihanouk had suffered ill health since the early 1990s. He endured cancer, a brain lesion and arterial, heart, lung, liver and eye ailments.
In late 2011, on his return from another extended stay in China, Sihanouk dramatically declared that he never intended to leave his homeland again. But true to his mercurial reputation, he flew off to Beijing just a few months later for medical care.
He was a flawed figure; egotistical who led a controversial life but touched all facets of Cambodians’ lives. He has held no real power since 1970 but younger Cambodian revere him as much as older generations. His passing also highlights the reduced role of the monarchy in Asia.
Norodom Sihanouk was a diminutive man, but one who cast a giant shadow. His cremation witnesses the passing of an era. We won’t see his like again.