PHNOM PENH, WASHINGTON DC - The body of former king Norodom Sihanouk was returned to Cambodia Wednesday, guided through the streets of the capital in a funeral procession as throngs of onlookers and mourners crowded the streets.
Sihanouk’s body, interred in a flowered, golden coffin, was carried on the back of a golden swan from Phnom Penh International Airport to the Royal Palace, protected by a motorcade and watched over by praying monks in saffron robes and a funeral detail in crisp white uniform.
His body will lie in state at the Royal Palace for three months, before a cremation ceremony is held.
Young and old gathered along the sides of the road, some weeping, others snapping pictures. Some cradled photos of Sihanouk to their chests, and some clasped lotus blossoms in hand.
“We can’t see him, only his body,” said Se Mon, who came from Kandal province and sobbed as the procession reached the palace. “He used to speak a lot on TV, and we could watch him as we wanted. Now we’ll not see him anymore. He left only his photograph.”
Sihanouk, who died following a heart attack in Beijing early Monday, was remembered both locally and internationally for his leadership of Cambodia through some of its best and worst history, from the early days of independence and a “golden age” into civil war, strife and the terrifying rule of the Khmer Rouge.
Sam Rainsy, the opposition leader in exile, said Sihanouk’s passing was a chance for Cambodians to remember to strive for national unity and sovereignty.
“If we all remember and follow the royal advice of the king father, then our country may not face any crises,” he told VOA Khmer via Skype from France. “Now that he has passed away, I have some concern that people in the coming days will forget the king’s advice…that Cambodians must unite.”
Kem Sokha, leader of the Human Rights Party, said Sihanouk had set out a good example for the country during his rule, which kept Cambodia undivided.
“If we split, foreigners will penetrate our country,” he said. “Then we won’t have political development.”
Lao Monghay, an independent analyst, said the former king has provided a kind of stability to the country, which does not have strong institutions. “That’s why this issue is not conducive to national unity at all,” he said. Cambodia remains in a region of Asia where conflicts can and do happen, and that the country’s leaders would do well to follow Sihanouk’s examples.
Cheam Yiep, a lawmaker for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, said the passing of the former king was an occasion to strive for “political reconciliation” in the country.