PHNOM PENH - The funeral procession for Cambodia’s former king, Norodom Sihanouk, began Friday, starting in the pre-dawn hours as soldiers and military in ceremonial garb gathered in Phnom Penh, where between 1 million and 3 million mourners are expected to travel in coming days.
Sihanouk will be cremated Monday, after days of ceremony, as Cambodians remember his legacy, which began with the country’s independence from France in the 1950s, carried into the Khmer Rouge era, and only ended in 2004, when he abdicated and passed the throne to his son, Norodom Sihamoni.
Sihanouk died in Beijing in October, and his body has been lying in state at the Royal Palace since then. Early Friday, his golden coffin was moved from the Royal Palace, via a number of streets, to its final place at the cremation site of the nearby Royal Field.
Sihanouk was one of Asia’s best-known leaders. He was enigmatic and mercurial, but well loved by many, and remembered Friday as a guide and guardian, a patron of the arts, music and film.
But he is also remembered by many for his early support of the Khmer Rouge, following his ouster in a US-backed coup in 1970, which helped a small communist movement gain recruits and legitimacy, ultimately leading to its rise to horrible power in 1975.
Still, for the throngs of Cambodians, old and young, that have begun amassing in the capital, the “King Father” is a much-loved and sorely missed figure.
“He chose the right way and was clean,” a 78-year-old Mey Morn told VOA Khmer as the ceremonial procession began Friday. “The loss is incomparable for me. He helped the nation and in his lifetime I often heard him appeal for national reconciliation.”
“Since I was born, I’ve found no other king that could be compared to our King Father,” said Dy Him, a 79-year-old resident of Phnom Penh.
Sihanouk’s procession was escorted by members of the royal family, including his widow, Norodom Monineath, and his children, including the current king, Norodom Sihamoni, Prince Norodom Radarridh and Princess Bopha Devi.
Prime Minister Hun Sen and his wife, Bun Rany, followed, as Heng Sarmin, head of the National Assembly, walked nearby. Chea Sim, president of the Senate and of the Cambodian People’s Party, was pushed by wheelchair.
Reporters were banned from shooting close-ups of the procession, and only state-run TV was allowed to video the entire event.
Mourners on the roadside wept as the procession past.
Sihanouk was remembered for his patriotism, having led Cambodia through its independence and having fought a battle at the International Court of Justice to have the popular Preah Vihear temple returned to Cambodia.
“The King Father negotiated with current Prime Minister Hun Sen, and later led the Paris Peace Accords in 1991, which has brought us peace ever since,” Pung Chhiv Kek, president of the rights group Licadho, told “Hello VOA” on Thursday.
Callers to the program said they were disappointed that the former king’s legacy was only remembered in his passing, and not during his lifetime.
“It is not too late, though the king has passed away, and the government has decided to publicize his achievements to our countrymen, so that the younger generation knows what the king brought to our country,” Pung Chhiv Kek said.
The king’s passing is a moment for reflection, she said, especially for the youth.
“I would like to encourage young people to study hard and pay attention to your health by staying away from drugs, so that you’re healthy to serve our country,” she said. “Pay attention to your own interests and your family, but don’t forget our country.”
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