Source: Agencies | 2013-2-5 | NEWSPAPER EDITION
Hundreds of thousands of mourners gather in Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh yesterday for the cremation of former King Norodom Sihanouk, who survived wars and the Khmer Rouge regime to hold center stage in the Southeast Asian nation for more than half a century.
HUNDREDS of thousands of mourners gathered in Cambodia's capital yesterday for the cremation of former King Norodom Sihanouk, the revered "king-father," who survived wars and the murderous Khmer Rouge regime to hold center stage in the Southeast Asian nation for more than half a century.
Cambodians from across the country flocked to Phnom Penh to pay their last respects as Sihanouk was given elaborate funeral rites - mingling Hindu, Buddhist and animist traditions - last seen 53 years ago with the death of Sihanouk's father, King Norodom Suramarit. And they may never be seen again in a rapidly modernizing country where the monarchy has lost much of its power and glamor.
After sunset, Sihanouk's son King Norodom Sihamoni and widow, Queen Mother Norodom Monineath, both weeping, ignited the funeral pyre inside a temple-like, 15-story-high crematorium.
"I would exchange my life for his if he could live because he was a great leader who brought peace, prosperity for the whole nation," said Pal Hor, an ailing, 64-year-old man who had come from the distant province of Battambang. He said he shaved his head out of reverence.
Sihamoni gave gifts to 400 prisoners pardoned for the mourning for his father, who he said was "in heaven, near the Lord Buddha, forever."
"May the much revered king support and protect the entire Kingdom of Cambodia and Cambodians forever," he said.
The cremation took place within a walled compound where Buddhist monks chanted around the flower-decked, gilt coffin. Only the country's elite and foreign dignitaries were allowed inside the cremation ground, along with courtiers dressed in 19th century-style uniforms with spiked helmets and swords.
The US$1.2 million crematorium, built just for this funeral, will be dismantled in keeping with Cambodian tradition.
Sihanouk's body had been lying in state since he died of a heart attack in Beijing on October 15 at the age of 89.
The cremation was the climax of seven days of official mourning for Sihanouk, who was placed on the throne by the French as a teenager.
Instead of proving a puppet, Sihanouk went on to win independence, then rule the country both as monarch and as head of state until he was ousted in a 1970 coup.
Internationally, he was a leading member of the non-aligned movement and heightened his small country's profile in the world.
A charismatic figure regarded as a "god-king" by many of his subjects, a prideful Sihanouk sided with the Khmer Rouge against the US-backed government, but after the victory of the ultra-communists in 1975, he and his wife were prisoners in their palace.
Five of his children died during the reign of terror.