PHNOM PENH: Hundreds of thousands of mourners lined the streets of the Cambodian capital on Wednesday to pay their last respects to revered former king Norodom Sihanouk on his final journey home.
The body of the mercurial ex-monarch, who steered his country through turbulent decades of war, genocide and finally peace, returned on a special flight from Beijing, where he died of a heart attack on Monday aged 89.
Draped with flowers and a royal blue flag, his coffin was borne through the streets of Phnom Penh on a golden float shaped like a mythological bird with robed monks seated in front and behind.
Sihanouk’s widow Queen Monique, son King Norodom Sihamoni and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen accompanied the casket in a slow-moving convoy. Cambodians of all ages — wearing white shirts and black ribbons — clasped their hands together in prayer as the procession passed. Many wept at the sight of Sihanouk’s coffin passing en route to the royal palace.
“It’s a sad day for the Cambodian people. The King-Father loved his children very much,” said Theng Nary, 67, tears rolling down her cheeks.
The government initially put the turnout at over 100,000 people, but local authorities gave a much higher figure at the end of the day.
“The estimate now is between one million and 1.2 million people, many more than we had expected,” Phnom Penh City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche told AFP.
Officials said many mourners had travelled to the capital from other provinces to witness the return of the ex-monarch, who remained popular even after standing down in favour of his son in 2004 citing old age and ill health.
His body will lie in state at the palace for three months before an elaborate funeral for the towering political figure, who abdicated twice, served variously as premier and head of state and spent years in exile.
The homecoming marked the start of a week-long mourning period during which the government has ordered radio and television stations not to broadcast joyful programmes.
It has also cancelled the festivities for next month’s Water Festival, an annual celebration that usually draws millions of visitors to the capital to enjoy dragon boat races, fireworks and concerts.
Mourners have flocked to the palace in recent days to pay tribute to Sihanouk with lotus flowers, candles and incense sticks, many of them sobbing as they knelt in prayer.
“His death is a great loss for Cambodia,” said 66-year-old Thong Bunsy, who described the former monarch as “a hero” who protected Cambodian territory and “chased the French away”.
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.
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.
In his most controversial decision, Sihanouk aligned 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.
Before his departure from the country he described as his “second homeland”, Sihanouk’s coffin was transported through Beijing in a bus decorated with yellow ribbons and flowers, as flags flew at half-mast on Tiananmen Square in his honour.