Cambodians throng to revered ex-king Sihanouk's cremation

Mon Feb 4, 2013 7:14am EST
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By Prak Chan Thul

PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of Cambodians gathered on Monday to pay their last respects to former King Norodom Sihanouk, a quixotic and much-loved figure who reigned during the country's struggle for independence but was powerless to prevent decades of war.

Salvoes from an artillery salute shook the crowds that gathered along Phnom Penh's Tonle Sap River as the embalmed body of the former monarch, who died aged 89 of heart failure on October 15, was cremated in a gold casket by the Royal Palace.

The current King Norodom Sihamoni and Sihanouk's widow, Queen Monineath, wept during the cremation as Cambodians poured into the capital to mourn the "king father", as Sihanouk is known.

"This is the most sorrowful moment," said Pal Ho, 58, a villager from the western province of Pursat, who carried with her six pictures of Sihanouk.

"When the king died, people were very sad. Even though we live so far away, we still come to pay our last respects," she said prior to the cremation.

Elaborate Buddhist funeral proceedings began on Friday. Television, radio stations and restaurants have since been playing songs Sihanouk wrote and sang.

Sihanouk helped win independence from French colonial rulers but was later unable to stop his country being dragged into the Vietnam War despite his political wheeling and dealing that critics say precipitated a slide into chaos and the Khmer Rouge "killing fields" revolution.

Despite that, Sihanouk was revered by most Cambodians, few of whom speak critically of him.   Continued...

A mourner prays in front of the Royal Palace near a crematorium, where a coffin with the remains of Cambodia's late King Norodom Sihanouk has been placed, in Phnom Penh February 4, 2013. REUTERS/Samrang Pring