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Mourning the passing of 'Sihanouk time'
Publication Date : 05-02-2013
The tens of thousands who attended former king Norodom Sihanouk's funeral rites in Phnom Penh mourned not just the passing of a monarch, but also much that was familiar about Cambodia for more than half a century.
Yesterday, leaders from around the world and the region gathered for the royal cremation ceremony - the midpoint of a lavish and elaborate week-long funeral.
They included Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, Japan's Prince Akishino, senior Chinese leader Jia Qinglin and Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
After the widow, Queen Norodom Monineath, and her son, King Norodom Sihamoni, lit the pyre at the cremation site next to the Royal Palace, a 101-gun salute went off and fireworks lit up the evening sky. The former monarch's embalmed body had been lying in state at the Royal Palace since he died of a heart attack in October last year, aged 89.
Cambodia is steadily shedding the vestiges of its conflicted past, but the reverence for the former king made it clear that emotionally, there remains a strong allegiance to the monarchy as a unifying factor at the core of its identity.
His abdication in 2004 in favour of his son Norodom Sihamoni was a carefully calculated move that ensured stability after his death. And it is possible for veneration of the monarchy to coexist comfortably with strong civilian leadership, analysts say.
The death of the mercurial, controversial but fiercely patriotic former monarch will be remembered as an emotional tipping point, even as his 2004 abdication heralded the twilight of the monarchy as a powerful political player.
Yet the deep respect Cambodians from all walks of life have for the late former king will rub off, to a degree, on his 59-year-old son, an accomplished ballet dancer who is said to have been reluctant to ascend the throne.
"In some ways, it was through dying that the late king, who peacefully won independence from France in 1953 and continued to mediate ends to the country's conflicts into the 1990s, was brought back to life," the Cambodia Daily wrote on Sunday.
"Despite spending the majority of his last years living in Beijing... he remained one of the most venerated personalities in the country."
Veteran Cambodian journalist Phann Ana, who is managing editor of the Cambodia Daily, told The Straits Times: "King Sihanouk was seen as a good leader, doing everything for the country, not for his personal gain."
He was very aware that the country's strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen - in power now for almost 30 years - is entrenched, said Professor Harish Mehta of Canada's McMaster University.
"His choice of Sihamoni was to create a pliable monarchy. Being non-political would fit in very well with Hun Sen," said Prof Mehta, a former journalist who co-authored a biography of Hun Sen. "Once Sihanouk stepped down, there was no restraining factor for Hun Sen."
Some decline in the aura enjoyed by the royalty is inevitable, analysts say.
Dr Pavin Chachavalpongpun, associate professor at Kyoto University's Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, wrote in an e-mail message: "When Cambodia was recreated through a new form of democracy - in the 1990s, with elections supported by the UN - suddenly the monarchy felt left out. With this, plus Sihanouk's ill health and the not-so-keen Sihamoni replacing him, the monarchy's position has declined."
He added: "But Sihanouk had been around for so long, people will always remember him. Sihanouk was also successful in portraying himself as a face of Cambodian patriotism in the face of internal and external enemies."
Dr Milton Osborne from the Lowy Institute for International Policy, who has written a book on the former monarch, wrote in the institute's Web journal last October: "It seems fair to conclude that Sihanouk's decision (to abdicate in 2004) was to ensure the monarchy's survival.
"There is no doubt that the Sihanouk years - or 'Sihanouk time' as they are often spoken of in Cambodia - will be looked back on as a kind of golden age."
He added: "King Sihamoni has followed a strictly correct role as king without any hint of involvement in political issues. He is relatively young and in good health, and could remain on the throne for many years to come."
Said Phann Ana: "Cambodian people regard the monarch... as a semi-god who can bring unity to the country. They still believe in the king."