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A grand farewell to Sihanouk

Hundreds of monks pray in front of the Royal Palace yesterday in Phnom Penh
Hundreds of monks pray in front of the Royal Palace yesterday in Phnom Penh. Scott Howes

A grand farewell to Sihanouk

Almost a year and a half after his extraordinary cremation in February last year, the ashes of the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk will be marched through the streets of Phnom Penh today as part of an elaborate three-day ceremony that began yesterday, before being interred at the Silver Pagoda on Saturday, their final resting place.

The King Father had requested to have his ashes interred in the same stupa where the remains of his daughter, Princess Kantha Bopha, who died in 1952 at the age of 4 from leukemia, are kept.

The event, being celebrated as an official holiday and expected to draw tens of thousands today, has been characterised by those close to him as a “final farewell” to Sihanouk, who as a monarch, politician and statesman loomed large over Cambodia for more than 60 years.

Yesterday evening, 3,600 monks gathered outside the Royal Palace in meditation and prayer ahead of what was scheduled, according to one program of events, to be a speech and greeting from King Norodom Sihamoni, who had been meeting with Prime Minister Hun Sen inside.

But the King ultimately did not emerge, leading many, including a few lower-level palace officials, to speculate that the presence of a heavy contingent of opposition lawmakers led by Cambodia National Rescue Party deputy president Kem Sokha had swayed his decision.

Oum Daravuth, adviser to the secretary of the Queen Mother, could not be reached for comment, while Information Minister Khieu Kanharith denied that the King had any plan to greet people. Other high-ranking officials on the organising committee dodged questions on the issue.

Earlier yesterday morning, officials from every ministry had offered alms to monks outside the palace before paying their respects at the recently erected statue of Sihanouk in front of Independence Monument, where they offered wreaths.

Today’s procession is the largest and most public event of the three-day program. The late King Father’s ashes are to be interred tomorrow per his wishes.

“The King made a number of wills and each will changed procedure. But the last will made clear he wanted his ashes in the stupa of Princess Kantha Bopha and they have very much respected the will,” said Julio Jeldres, Sihanouk’s former private secretary and official biographer.

But the stupa, which was built in 1960, required serious refurbishment and renovation, according to palace insiders, explaining the lengthy period between cremation and interment.

“The former stupa of Princess Kantha Bopha was not in very good [condition], so they had to reinforce it and embellish it a bit better to be worthy of Sihanouk,” said Son Soubert, high privy councillor to King Norodom Sihamoni.

Monks pray in front of the Royal Palace yesterday in Phnom Penh during the first day of ceremonies to inter the late King Father’s ashes at the Silver Pagoda
Monks pray in front of the Royal Palace yesterday in Phnom Penh during the first day of ceremonies to inter the late King Father’s ashes at the Silver Pagoda. Vireak Mai

The Silver Pagoda is also home to a stupa bearing the ashes of Sihanouk’s father, King Norodom Suramarit, who reigned from 1955 until his death in 1960, and his wife Queen Sisowath Kossamak, who died in 1975.

King Ang Duong, Sihanouk’s great-great-grandfather, and Ang Duong’s son, King Norodom, also have stupas dedicated to them in the Silver Pagoda compound.

Other monarchs are memorialised at the old royal capital of Oudong.

“There is no prescription as to where the King should be enshrined,” said Soubert, adding, however, that Sihanouk’s choice was unsurprising. “I think it’s logical, because he loved that daughter a lot and when he used to travel, he always took the urn of that daughter with him.”

Following the cremation last year, some of Sihanouk’s ashes were scattered by the royal family at the confluence of the Mekong, Tonle Sap and Tonle Bassac rivers, while some were sent to a Buddhist temple in Japan.

Today’s procession will see 7,000 police, military and military police officers deployed to the streets around the palace, national police spokesman Kirth Chantharith said.

Large stretches of Street 178, Norodom Boulevard, Sihanouk Boulevard and Sothearos Boulevard will be blocked.

While he couldn’t specify how many people would attend, Chantharith said “all people were welcome”.

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