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Crowd marks end of mourning week

King Norodom Sihamoni (L) and Queen Mother Norodom Monineath (R) perform a Buddhist blessing during the last day of official mourning for the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk, Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2012, in front of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. Thousands of Buddhist monks and mourners joined the ceremony. Photograph: Heng Chivoan/Phnom Penh Post

In a stirring close to seven days of mourning for the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk, his son King Norodom Sihamoni and wife, Queen Mother Norodom Monineath Sihanouk, exited the Royal Palace last night and spent an hour greeting, consoling, and receiving condolences from the tens of thousands of mourners who showed up last night.

About 10,000 monks clad in saffron sat cross-legged in the nearby Royal Palace Park, chanting in unison in front of a crowd estimated at more than 100,000 that lined both sides of Sothearos Boulevard and stretched back across Preah Sisowath Quay towards the Tonle Sap river.

Dressed in white, Sok Norng, 66, said she had spent the past three days camped outside the palace to pay her respects to the King Father after travelling from Svay Rieng province’s Bavet town.

“He brought tranquility, national reconciliation and peace to our country. Although he has passed away, I will respect him until the end of my life,” she said.

“I will not return to my house until I have entered the palace and burned incense in front of the former king’s body in order to show my never-ending gratitude to him.”

The funeral of the King Father, who passed away in China on October 15 of a heart attack at 89, will be held in about three months, but it remains unclear when the palace will be opened to allow citizens such as Norng to pay their final respects.

Son Soubert, an adviser to the king, said the public would have to wait until at least the beginning of next month to enter the palace.

“I think this will be the case,” he said, adding that he expected people to camp out for their opportunity to see the King Father’s body.

Setting up camp around the palace’s periphery, however, may prove easier said than done.

Long Dimanche, spokesman for the Phnom Penh Municipal Hall, said that although city officials had provided portable toilets for mourners, camping was not an option.

“We have no plans to allow a camp to be constructed,” Dimanche said.

“Imagine how affected public order will be when senior officials and delegates from other countries come to mourn the former king.”

It was up to the royal festival committee, which includes a number of senior government officials, to announce when the public could enter the palace, Dimanche added.

Long before rain brought an end to yesterday’s events, thousands of garment workers marched from the Free Trade Union office in Chamkarmon district with the intention of passing the Independence Monument on their way to the palace.

Police, however, blocked their passage, preventing them from reaching the monument by directing them south down Norodom Boulevard as they emerged from side streets.

A police officer at the scene, who declined to give his name, said the marchers could not walk past Independence Monument because senior government officials were due to visit it.

FTU general secretary Mann Seng Hak said more than 10,000 workers had marched.

“They’re disappointed that they were blocked,” he said, adding, however, that many had still made it to the palace.

Others who ventured to the Royal Palace to pray for the spirit of the King Father included students, politicians, Boeung Kak lake residents and members of the Association of Democrats, whose leader Mam Sonando was sentenced to 20 years in prison early this month.

Mourners dressed in white – from small children to elderly women – held pictures of Sihanouk as smoke from burning incense billowed overhead.

Ky Sovanrattana, a chief monk and deputy director of a Buddhist high school, said about 10,000 monks had attended to perform the biggest religious  ceremony in Cambodia’s history.

Trucks used to transport garment workers lined the streets and residents, including elderly nuns, received attention in a medical tent.

Charities gave away water and rice, while youths and monks helped collect rubbish almost as it dropped to the ground.

“People are showing solidarity,” Soubert said. “People have come from the country, and those in Phnom Penh are sharing food with them.”

High school student Ang Sokunmoniroth, who was handing out bottles of water on the street, said he and his friends wanted to help people as they mourned the King Father.

“We don’t have much money, but we chipped in up to 100,000 riel [$25] each to buy water for distribution,” he said. “I was absolutely delighted to share during this tremendous occasion.”

Sea Sophon, 46, a representative of the Association of Democrats, said he had come to pray for the soul of the former king and express his gratitude for the peace he had brought in the early 1990s.

“I hope the government will follow in his footsteps to improve the country and the impartiality of the legislation system,” he said.

To contact the reporters on this story: May Titthara at titthara.may@phnompenhpost.com and Shane Worrell at shane.worrell@phnompenhpost.com
With assistance from: Mom Kunthear

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