PHNOM PENH: Thousands of mourners massed in the Cambodian capital Monday as the kingdom cremated its revered former king Norodom Sihanouk, who steered his country through six turbulent decades.
The cremation was part of a week-long funeral for the mercurial ex-monarch, which started with a lavish procession through the streets of Phnom Penh on Friday and will see his ashes returned to the palace on Thursday.
Sihanouk died of a heart attack in Beijing in October, aged 89. His embalmed body had been lying in state since then at the royal palace.
After religious ceremonies led by chanting monks, Sihanouk’s tearful widow Monique and son King Norodom Sihamoni symbolically lit the pyre.
Smoke was seen rising into the sky from the crematory, an elaborate pagoda built specially for the occasion and illuminated as darkness fell.
A 101-gun salute echoed in the night and fireworks burst over the city.
“It’s the last day for us all to pay homage to the great hero king and to send him to heaven,” Sihanouk’s long-time personal assistant Prince Sisowath Thomico said before the cremation.
“It is the day for the whole nation to say goodbye to his majesty. He is the hero of Cambodia,” Thomico told AFP.
Earlier mourners jostled to get to the front of the queue to enter the cremation site to pay their last respects to the chameleon king, who was deft at moving with the political tides.
The site was later cleared of the general public before the arrival of official guests including French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, Japan’s Prince Akishino and several Southeast Asian leaders who bowed in respect.
Thousands of people had already queued up at the crematorium over the weekend for a glimpse of the gilded casket, but the general public was kept several hundred meters (yards) away from the site for the actual cremation.
Mourners have also grouped outside the royal palace to hold prayers, light incense and place lotus flowers in front of portraits of Sihanouk.
After the cremation, some of Sihanouk’s ashes will be scattered where the Mekong, Tonle Sap and Tonle Bassac rivers meet.
The remainder will be taken to the royal palace on Thursday where they will be kept in a royal urn in accordance with the former king’s wishes.
A father of 14 children over six marriages, Sihanouk abdicated in 2004 after steering Cambodia through six decades marked by independence from France, civil war, the murderous Khmer Rouge regime, his own exile and finally peace.
But even though the ever-changeable monarch had allied himself with the Maoist movement, Sihanouk — a self-confessed “naughty boy” who loved to direct films, write poetry and compose songs — remained hugely popular.
“He earned independence, peace, and prosperity for the country. Now he has gone, I’m worried that peace might vanish in the future,” said Sum Seun, 60.
But attendance at Friday’s funeral procession appeared to fall well short of the one million people predicted by the government.
“I’m too busy to go to the funeral. It’s important, but I don’t have time,” said a 25-year-old man who gave his name as Sna.
Observers say that while the royals remain highly revered by many elderly Cambodians, the monarchy appears to be growing less relevant in the eyes of the younger generation.
The myth surrounding Sihanouk is fading, said historian Hugues Tertrais. Since his abdication in 2004, “Sihanouk was no longer as present or spectacular,” he said.