PHNOM PENH - Like many other Cambodians, Pouch Kri reveres the “king father,” Norodom Sihanouk, who passed away in Beijing last week.
But the 74-year-old is also disappointed, he said, because one thing Sihanouk never did was clarify his role in the rise of the Khmer Rouge before the UN-backed tribunal underway in Phnom Penh.
Sihanouk, who spent much of his time in China after abdicating in 2004, never went before the court, which is currently trying aging Khmer Rouge leaders Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan and Ieng Sary, for atrocity crimes.
“If I were him, I would have revealed everything,” Pouch Kri said of Sihanouk, speaking to VOA Khmer from his home in the capital. “As we say, ‘Pure gold is not afraid of fire.’ So I would have dared to reveal what I did during that time and why I did it.”
Deposed in a coup in 1970, Sihanouk backed the communist guerrillas from China, helping to swell Khmer Rouge ranks and the eventual toppling of the Lon Nol government, in 1975.
That has left for some a “dirty mark” in that period of history, said Eng Kok Thay, deputy director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia. Sihanouk’s death now means that some facts will be lost to time, he said.
“When His Majesty cooperated with the communist movement in the jungle and when he communicated with Khmer Rouge leaders, what was it like?” he said. “We are curious because he was part of the story in Cambodian history, as a top leader.”
Tribunal officials declined to comment, citing the mourning period for the former king. And there are some Cambodians who would prefer the past is left alone.
Nun Lux, a fan of Sihanouk, called any criticism of his involvement with the Khmer Rouge “inappropriate.” The Khmer Rouge “took advantage of His Majesty the King’s policy,” he said, echoing the feelings of others. Blaming Sihanouk would be unfair, he added. “He was the father of all Khmers. He did not kill or sink the nation. Those who did were only a handful of Khmer Rouge.”
Throngs of mourners continued to gather in front of the Royal Palace Tuesday, crowding the streets that parallel the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers in the capital. Vigils have been held day and night for the former king, whose body lies in state.
The continuous protests and demonstrations that have bedeviled Cambodian authorities for months have been put on hold. The latest of these, of youth supporters for the Sam Rainsy Party, was postponed. Supporters say they want the National Election Committee overhauled before national elections in 2013 and will demonstrate. On Tuesday, some members shaved their heads to mourn the king, but no demonstrations were held.
Thousands of garment factory workers from the Free Trade Union, the nation’s most active movement, gathered before the palace as well, joining mourners who wore white, knelt before the palace, chanted and prayed, burned incense and clutched lotus flowers or Sihanouk portraits to their chests.
Young people too put their daily lives on hold. “I stopped playing games or doing Facebook to mourn the king father,” said Ky Sok Heng, a student.
In the United States, more than 100 Cambodian-Americans gathered at the Buddhikaram temple in Silver Spring, Md., on Monday, marking the Seven-Day Ceremony of Sihanouk’s passing.
Here, Sihanouk, who would have been 90 on Oct. 31, was remembered fondly for leading Cambodia out of colonialism without bloodshed.
“We didn’t have weapons, or our weapons had no ammunition,” said You Seang Nguon Ly, 86, whose family ran passenger ships on the Mekong River. “But His Majesty successfully gained our independence.”
Sihanouk was remembered for the Paris Peace Accords, in 1991, for the films he produced in the halcyon days before the wars and for his supporting role with the Khmer Rouge.
You Seang Nuon Ly, however, agreed with many people, claiming Sihanouk was “cheated and betrayed” by the Khmer Rouge leaders.
“We human beings are not perfect,” he said. “But to make some mistakes is inevitable.”