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Monks Take Center Stage as Sihanouk Rituals Continue

The coffin carrying the late former Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk in a funeral procession leaves the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, Feb. 1, 2013.
Funeral ceremonies for the late king Norodom Sihanouk continued Wednesday, with monks playing a central role as Cambodians continued to mourn the death of the former monarch.

Following Buddhist traditions, on the sixth day of the funeral ceremonies, food offerings were made to 32 monks representing elements of the human body, while Cambodian People’s Party leaders joined with the royal family for continued services.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, CPP President Chea Sim and National Assembly President Heng Samrin joined King Norodom Sihamoni and other members of the royal family to hear sermons performed by three monks.

Meanwhile, 90 monks, representing the 90 years of Sihanouk’s life, performed chants to mourn his passing.

The former king, who died in Beijing in October, was cremated late Monday, and his remains were gathered on Tuesday. Tens of thousands of Cambodians have continued to mourn in the capital since services began last week.

Sihnaouk was revered by many, in a culture that once held kings as gods, but his death has also prompted new questions about the future of the monarchy and its role in governing the Cambodian people.

Cambodia is a constitutional monarchy, and Sihanouk was until his 2004 abdication very much involved in politics. His son, King Norodom Sihamoni, has not been.

“I hope that Cambodian people will unite around the throne, the king, the queen mother and the government in order to preserve the great legacy of the father of our nation, which is our true national independence, territorial integrity, sovereignty, and unity,” Sihanouk’s son, Prince Norodom Radarridh, told VOA Khmer in an interview Tuesday.

Cambodian prince and former first prime mininister Norodom Ranariddh walks during the funeral procession of his late father, King Father Norodom Sihanouk on February 1, 2013. (Heng Reaksmey/VOA Khmer)
Cambodian prince and former first prime mininister Norodom Ranariddh walks during the funeral procession of his late father, King Father Norodom Sihanouk on February 1, 2013. (Heng Reaksmey/VOA Khmer)
Radnarridh was a major political figure during Cambodia’s transition to democracy, but he and his royalists were removed from a powersharing agreement with the CPP by a coup in 1997. He ultimately moved away from politics, receding after losses in the 2008 elections, which were dominated by the CPP.

“My personal view is that if we want the monarchy to stay on, royalists should stop getting involved in politics by taking part in any particular party,” Ranarridh said. “Then we can get to what we really want to achieve, which is a core royalist force for the nation.”

Ou Virak, head of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said Sihanouk’s passing was a time to remember some of his politics, especially his abdication, during which he peacefully handed the throne to his son.

“This is something that politicians should learn from,” he said.

Sihanouk was lauded for his ability to maintain national unity during tumultuous times, but politics these days have become divisive, Ou Virak told “Hello VOA” Monday. But people should now feel empowered to exercise their democratic rights, especially in the July parliamentary elections, he said.

“Prime Minister Hun Sen has said publicly that if his party loses the election, he will hand over power peacefully,” Ou Virak said. “This is something people should be aware of, and not worry about [threats].”

Many older Cambodians have seen violent political transitions, but the younger generation, especially those who have only know Hun Sen’s government, don’t have a sense of that, he said. The government now has a responsibility to restore confidence in its populace, and people should know they can still turn to the monarchy in difficult times, he added.

“The throne should be a symbol of stability,” he said.

The Royal Palace should also be remembered a place where people’s complaints were heard. Sihanouk was careful to maintain a connection to everyday Cambodians, and the outpouring of grief that has come since his death underscores the personal connection he represented to many people.

“The King Father was humble, and close to his people,” Ou Virak said. Today’s elected officials are different. They drive luxury vehicles, and their children are “born spoiled,” he said. Those in power today “don’t know whether the ground has puddles or not.”

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