Cambodia’s revered and charismatic former king Norodom Sihanouk, whose life encompassed turbulent years of rule, exile and war — including the Khmer Rouge reign of terror — died yesterday in Beijing aged 89.
Sihanouk, who had been a frequent visitor to China, where he received most of his medical treatment, died of a heart attack, according to his longtime personal assistant, Prince Sisowath Thomico.
“It’s painful. I am full of sorrow,” he said of the former monarch, who abruptly quit the throne in October 2004, citing old age and health problems.
“King Sihanouk did not belong to his family, he belonged to Cambodia and to history,” Thomico said.
The royal, a keen filmmaker and poet whose six marriages lent him a reputation as a playboy, steered his country through decades of painful political and social convulsions, from independence to civil war and invasion.
Renowned for unpredictability, Sihanouk repeatedly switched allegiances as the political climate changed, including backing Khmer Rouge guerrillas before he was himself imprisoned by them.
The fanatical communist regime caused the deaths of up to 2 million people, including five of Sihanouk’s 14 children. Sihanouk, who had fought a long battle with health problems that dogged his final years, including cancer, diabetes and heart problems, remained a staunch supporter of China. He saw it as a “second home” and spent much of his time there, accompanied by his devoted sixth wife, Monique.
Cambodia woke to the news of their former monarch’s demise on the final day of the annual festival for the dead known as Pchum Ben, when most people leave the capital, Phnom Penh, to spend time with their families in the countryside.
His son, King Norodom Sihamoni, left for Beijing at about mid-morning to collect his body, accompanied by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. Both men were seen sobbing quietly as they greeted each other with an emotional embrace, before boarding the plane as flags lining the airport building flew at half-mast.
In the capital, families flocked to temples to take food and money offerings to Buddhist monks, honoring their dead ancestors, who are believed to emerge to walk the earth during this time.
Young and old said they would add the country’s beloved former king to their prayers.
“I heard from the older generation that he tried his best to help the people of Cambodia,” 20-year-old Sochakrya Theng said at a pagoda near the Royal Palace.
“I will say a prayer for him,” the university student said.
TV stations broadcast footage of Sihanouk, who remains hugely popular in Cambodia, while social networking sites such as Facebook buzzed with condolence messages and shared pictures of the late king.
Sihanouk’s body will go on display in Phnom Penh for three months before a lavish state funeral, an official said.
The body is set to arrive in the Cambodian capital tomorrow afternoon and a mourning period will last until Sunday, government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said.
“[The] funeral will be three months later,” he said, explaining that it would give Cambodians a chance to pay their respects to the beloved monarch.