PHNOM PENH - Tens of thousands of Cambodians mourned in the streets of Phnom Penh on Monday night, as the body of former king Norodom Sihanouk was cremated, ending an extended period of grief that began after his death on Oct. 15, 2012.
Sihanouk was a revered figure by many Cambodians, and his passing has made him a cultural touchstone, not just for those old enough to remember his rule, which began as Cambodia gained independence from France, but from a younger generation looking to a period in their nation’s history that is generally regarded as peaceful and prosperous—the era just before the country was engulfed in the American war in Vietnam, the rise of the Khmer Rouge and the decades of civil strife that followed the regime’s fall.
The funeral pyre was lighted by Sihanouk’s visibly remorseful son, King Norodom Sihamoni, and his widow, Norodom Monineath, in a Buddhist ceremony near the Royal Palace grounds on Monday evening.
Tens of thousands of mourners wept as smoke from the pyre drifted into the darkness, fireworks ingnited and monks chanted their prayers.
King Sihamoni granted amnesty to 400 prisoners in remembrance of his father, and a sea of mourners remained around the pyre well after the official ceremony was concluded, burning incense or shooting video and taking photographs.
“I’m saddened to lose him,” Ly Sinleng, told VOA Khmer in a live radio broadcast. “This is such a loss, of a king who brought us independence.”
The crowd was at times overwhelmed by its own immensity, with jostling and a surge when the pyre was lighted, and with some mourners seeking medical attention at a nearby medical station thereafter.
Foreign dignitaries from China, Laos, Japan, Thailand and Vietnam met with Prime Minster Hun Sen earlier in the day to express their condolences.
The Chinese delegation pledged to sustain on ongoing friendship between Phnom Penh and Beijing, where Sihanouk spent many of his remaining days, ill, and where he died following a heart attack.
The friendship was “initiated by the former king and will be maintained,” VOA Khmer reporter Kong Sothanarith said in a live broadcast, quoting a Cambodian government official.
Meanwhile, mourners came from around the country, descending on the capital and organizing at various pagodas and other holy sites in the city and on its outskirts.
“They’re going in and out, as during the Water Festival, but the difference is that they have sad faces and are dressed in mourning garb,” VOA Khmer reporter Thida Win said in a live broadcast.
On Friday, Cambodian Cham Muslims held ceremonies in honor of the former king during their traditional weekly holy day, dedicating their prayers to Sihanouk.
“We always hold firm our hands in praying to Allah,” one worshipper, Abu Bakat, told VOA Khmer Friday at a mosque outside the city, “wishing the king rests in peace.”
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