PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Tens of thousands poured into Cambodia’s capital to witness the procession on Wednesday of the body of former king Norodom Sihanouk, a revered figure who ruled through the triumph of independence to the tragedy of its brutal civil war.
Mourners dressed in white lined the 10-km (6-mile) route to welcome the return of Sihanouk, the flamboyant former monarch who died at 89 of heart failure on Monday in Beijing, his residence since abdicating eight years ago.
The turnout was indicative of the unfaltering respect for a quixotic patriarch whose political machinations played a part in Cambodia’s slide from liberation from French colonialism to the horrors of the Khmer Rouge’s “killing fields” revolution.
“I feel very sorry, I want to see him one last time,” said Mon Met, 48, who waited at the Royal Palace for his body to arrive.
“I only remember him as the person that brought happiness to the country. Now I feel scared of what happens next.”
Thousands huddled since dawn under umbrellas to escape the sun, others flowed in on trucks, carrying pictures of the film-making former monarch, whose blend of popular speeches and authoritarian rule held Cambodia together in its 1950s-1960s heyday.
Sihanouk’s body was escorted from Beijing by his son, King Norodom Sihamoni and Prime Minister Hun Sen, the “strongman” of Cambodian politics whose 27-year grip on power Sihanouk could never match after taking the throne for the second time in 1993 following a U.N. brokered shift to a fragile democracy.
The Chinese capital, where he spent most of a self-exile that included numerous visits to his residence in North Korea, also showed its respects for Sihanouk by lowering a flag at Tiananmen Square, a rare gesture for a non-Chinese ruler, whose country is now Beijing’s steadfast ally in Southeast Asia.
A week of mourning began on Monday and preparations were underway for a lavish state funeral at an undisclosed date. Next month’s water festival was canceled and Sihanouk’s body will lie in state for three months.
In the late 1960s, having abdicated to boost his political power, Sihanouk played both sides in the Cold War and could not stop Cambodia’s descent into the Vietnam War, siding with Vietnamese communists who fought Americans.
After his ouster in a U.S.-backed coup, he made a pact with Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge and paid a heavy price, becoming a prisoner in his palace and losing five children and 14 grandchildren.
He was powerless to halt the deaths at least 1.8 million of his people - a quarter of the population - who perished of disease, exhaustion and execution during the Maoists’ 1975-1979 rule.
But despite his political flip-flopping, diminished influence and latter years in exile, the enigmatic Sihanouk will be remembered with fondness, a man groomed to be a puppet of France who defied his colonial masters and tried to prevent a repeat of Cambodia’s bloodstained past.
“He acted good, he advised his compatriots not to fight among themselves and he brokered peace in our country,” said Kong Sopha, 56. “I feel sad. If the king was alive, he would still be our patriarch.”
Additional reporting by Benjamin Kang Lim in Beijing; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Ron Popeski