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What will remain of King Sihanouk’s achievements after its cremation?

The cremation ceremony of former King Sihanouk in Cambodia marks the end of Cambodia’s official mourning. As over a million of Cambodians and visitors flew to the capital to participate to the funeral, what will however remain of King Sihanouk once the mourning over?

PHNOM PENH— Some 1.5 million of mourners gathered in Cambodia’s capital yesterday for the cremation of former King Norodom Sihanouk, the revered “King-Father,” who survived wars and the murderous Khmer Rouge regime to hold center stage in the Southeast Asian nation for more than half a century.

Cambodians from across the country flocked to Phnom Penh to pay their last respects as Sihanouk was given elaborate funeral rites — mingling Hindu, Buddhist and animist traditions — last seen 53 years ago with the death of Sihanouk’s father, King Norodom Suramarit. And they may never be seen again in a rapidly modernizing country where the monarchy has lost much of its power and glamour.

After sunset, Sihanouk’s son King Norodom Sihamoni and widow, Queen Mother Norodom Monineath, both weeping, ignited the funeral pyre inside a temple-like, 15-story-high crematorium. Howitzers fired salvos as fireworks lit up the sky.

“I would exchange my life for his if he could live because he was a great leader who brought peace, prosperity for the whole nation,” said Pal Hor, an ailing, 64-year-old man who had come from the distant province of Battambang. He said he shaved his head out of reverence for the deceased monarch.

After the cremation, Sihamoni handed out gifts to some 400 prisoners he had earlier pardoned as part of the mourning for his father, who he said was “in heaven, near the Lord Buddha, forever.”

“May the much revered king support and protect the entire Kingdom of Cambodia and Cambodians forever,” he said.

The cremation took place within a walled compound where 90 Buddhist monks — one for each year of Sihanouk’s life as counted by Cambodians — chanted around the flower-decked, gilt coffin. Only the country’s elite and foreign dignitaries were allowed inside the cremation ground, along with courtiers dressed in pantaloons and soldiers in 19th century-style uniforms with spiked helmets and swords.

The $1.2 million crematorium, built just for this funeral, will be dismantled in keeping with Cambodian tradition.

Sihanouk’s body had been lying in state since he died of a heart attack in Beijing on Oct. 15 at the age of 89.

The cremation was the climax of seven days of official mourning for Sihanouk, who was placed on the throne by the French as a teenager. Instead Sihanouk went on to win independence, then rule the country both as monarch and head of state until ousted in a 1970 coup.

A charismatic figure regarded as a “God-King” by many of his subjects, a prideful Sihanouk sided with the Khmer Rouge against the U.S.-backed government, but after the victory of the ultra-communists in 1975, he and his wife were held prisoners in the palace.

A consummate survivor, Sihanouk emerged as a leader of an insurgency fighting a Phnom Penh government installed by the Vietnamese and went on to broker a peace accord that enabled his return to the throne in 1993. He abdicated 11 years later in favor of Sihamoni, a 59-year-old former ballet dancer who had spent most of his life in European artistic circles and has proven a low-keyed constitutional monarch overshadowed by strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen.

In the coming days, some of Sihanouk’s ashes will be scattered near the confluence of the four rivers in Phnom Penh, while others will be put in an urn which, according to his wishes, will be placed on the grounds of the Royal Palace near those of his favorite daughter, Kunthea Buppha, who died at the age of 3.

The funeral was attended by French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, Prince Akishino of Japan, leaders of neighboring countries and China’s Jia Qinglin, a senior government adviser and former high-ranking Politburo member.

Once the funeral over, how Sihanouk’s legacy will still be visible to visitors to Cambodia? The relations between the former monarch and the current Prime Minister Hun Sen were far of being easy. Consequently, over the last decade, the Cambodian government tried to erase the legacy of the old King. Many of the buildings of the Sihanouk time designated as “Sangkum Reastr Niyum” have already been destroyed and replaced by structures to the glory of the current Prime Minister.

At a recent press conference of Cambodia Ministry of Tourism hosted during the ASEAN Travel Forum in Vientiane, representatives of the Ministry admitted that nothing has so far been prepared to highlight Sihanouk legacy. “There is a plan to build a statue near the Royal Palace,” explained one of the representatives. Meanwhile, only the NGO Khmer Architecture Tours (KA-Tours) conducts regularly tours of Sihanouk architectural legacy. “We definitely expect renewed interest of tourists for the life of the former King”, said the Ministry of Tourism.

So far, Angkor Museum in Siem Reap has been renamed Preah Norodom Sihanouk Museum. And the city of Kampong Cham bears for a long time already the name of Sihanoukville, in homage to the father of Modern Cambodia. There is however no doubt that a museum will soon show the achievements of the King. Most probably within the Royal Palace compounds…

(Partial Source: Associated Press)

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Luc Citrinot a French national is a freelance journalist and consultant in tourism and air transport with over 20 years experience. Based in Paris and Bangkok, he works for various travel and air transport trade publications in Europe and Asia.

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