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Remembering a Former King’s Legacy

Buddhist monks heading for receiving food from devotees during the three-day Buddhist ceremony to dedicate to dead of former King Norodom Sihanouk in front of Royal Palace, in Phnom Penh, file photo.
Buddhist monks heading for receiving food from devotees during the three-day Buddhist ceremony to dedicate to dead of former King Norodom Sihanouk in front of Royal Palace, in Phnom Penh, file photo.

More than 1,000 people, including monks and students, gathered Wednesday in front of the Royal Palace to mark the second anniversary of the passing of former king Norodom Sihanouk.

The former king was much beloved by many Cambodians, abdicating the throne in 2004 and passing away in Beijing two years ago. Supporters Wednesday gave alms to monks and paid their respects to the man they call “King Father.”

Fifty-three-year-old Phnom Penh resident Tith Narin said she brought food to the monks and hoped that all her good acts of the day reached the King Father’s spirit.

“We do this because we remember what the king did for us,” she said. “He’s Cambodia’s identity of unity and prosperity. He brought Cambodia independence.”

Despite his involvement in the Khmer Rouge movement, whose ranks he helped bolster after he was deposed in a US-backed coup, the former king is remembered for a larger legacy. Many remember him as shepherding Cambodia through independence in the 1950s and through tumultuous years of war following the fall of the Khmer Rouge.

“I would like to take this opportunity to remind everyone about the former king’s most remarkable legacy, which was the independence in 1953,” Prince Sisowath Thomico, a former personal assistant to Sihanouk, said in an interview. “All Cambodians, especially the younger generation, have to remember that it was the king who claimed full independence from the Republic of France on Nov. 9 [1953]. We have to unite to protect this independence and to protect our territorial integrity.”

Sihanouk, then a young prince, saw the end of the colonial rule of the French, which began in 1863. He was known as a charismatic leader, if not mercurial and audacious. He led a lavish lifestyle as prince and king, leading before the Khmer Rouge and after.

Kem Sokha, vice president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, said remembering Sihanouk’s legacy is to remember territorial integrity and national unity—two key contributions he made. “Every time that we commemorate his passing, I always remember these two points.”

Chheang Von, a lawmaker for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, said part of Sihanouk’s legacy lives on now in the spirit of dialogue.

“When the king was alive, he always invited politicians to get together to discuss a way out of a crisis,” he said. “This is the spirit that we are using in the fifth mandate,” he said, referring to political deals struck between the ruling party and opposition following last year’s election and subsequent deadlock.

Sihanouk peacefully transferred power to his son, Norodom Sihamoni, in October 2004, avoiding a political crisis that might have come from his death if he were still on the throne.

“Therefore, in the context of our politics, in my view our leaders have decided since 1993 to follow the path of liberal and multi-party democracy,” Chheang Von said. “This means that we respect the will of our people, who give the winning votes to any political party to continue the work. And if the ruling party loses, it will hand over power to its successor peacefully.”

But Kem Sokha said it may be harder than it sounds for those in power to relinquish it.

“Transferring power from those who hold it directly is harder than transferring power in the palace,” he said. “It is difficult, because those who are in power do not want a successor to take over. Therefore, this culture must be changed. They should not think that power belongs to an individual. It belongs to the people. When people transfer it to any leader, we have to transfer it peacefully.”

Sihanouk famously built strong personal connections with regional leaders, including former Indonesian president Sukarno, Jawaharlal Nehru, former prime minister of India, and former Chinese premier Zhou Enlai. No Cambodian politicians have taken the lead over Sihanouk on international politics.

“Now there is no cold war crisis,” said Thun Saray, president of the rights group Adhoc. “Therefore, to find a leader that has a high image like him with international recognition is still limited. This makes our country seem not to shine regionally and internationally. However, we see that we’ve maintained peace in our community, despite a few disputes following the elections.”

Oct. 15 is now a public holiday, allowing people to take time away from work to spend with their families and to reflect on the legacy of Sihanouk. Those who lived through the Golden Age, under his rule, remember him well, and future generations, too, maintain respect for him.

But Prince Thomico said upholding his legacy is not as easy as it sounds, especially for politicians who tout peace, unity and independence, but “have done nothing to live up to their promises.” “I’m really sorry to see that,” he said.

Cambodia is still influenced from outside countries, he said, hurting its independence. And he urged the Royal Palace to make an effort to be neutral. Chheang Von disagreed, saying the palace was getting stronger all the time.

Still, observers say King Sihamoni played little role in mediating last year’s political standoff.

“In 2003, the former king had influence in political mediation, but 2013 turned out to be different,” political analyst Sok Touch said. “The former king mediated a lot, and politicians trusted him. But the current king seems not to have influence on politicians, despite his presence as the umbrella of all politicians. Politicians seem not to pay as much attention to him as to his father.”