King Father Norodom Sihanouk (C), Royal Palace Minister Kong Som Ol and Queen Norodom Monineath board a plane for China. Photograph: Heng Chivoan/Phnom Penh Post
King Father Norodom Sihanouk passed away today in Beijing at the age of 89, 59 years after he declared Cambodia's independence from France.
Sihanouk was a greatly charismatic leader revered as something of a God King during the height of his power in the 1950s and 60s. He served both as King and then Prime Minister after taking the daring step of abdicating from the throne to enter politics.
In 1970, he was ousted as Prime Minister in a bloodless coup d'etat led by the right-wing general Lon Nol and watched from exile in China as Cambodia slid further into the turmoil of the Vietnam War that preceded the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime.
The prince returned to his country after it fell in 1975 to the ultra-maoist Khmer Rouge regime responsible for the deaths of an estimated 1.8 million Cambodians, torture, rape, forced labour camps, starvation and the decimation of the country's economy and was placed under house arrest. Several of his children and grandchildren were killed by the regime.
As Cambodia began to recover after the Vietnamese-backed guerrillas liberated the country from the Khmer Rouge in 1979, Sihanouk once again entered into the political fray but was unable to negotiate his way back to the ruler, finally abdicating the throne in 2004 to his son, Norodom Sihamoni.
In recent years the retired King repeatedly travelled to Beijing to receive medical treatment for a number of ailments including diabetes and cancer. In a hospital there, he finally succumbed to a heart attack on today at 1.20 am, Phnom Penh time, Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan confirmed.
Just as Sihanouk was loved by many in the countryside, he was at times loathed by enemies on both sides of politics and was a controversial statesman credited both with great achievements such as helping secure independence from colonialism and catastrophes such as his disingenuous public endorsement of the Khmer Rouge.
A crowd of hundreds if not thousands flocked to the royal palace to mourn the passing of the beloved former King today.
Sihanouk's long-time personnel assistant Prince Sisowath Thomico said King Norodom Sihamoni, Prime Minister Hun Sen, Interior Minister Sar Kheng and Defense Minister Tea Banh travelled to Beijing this morning to retrieve the body and will return Wednesday.
“The whole Cambodian people, the royal family, is just mourning,” he said, adding that the royal palace would issue an official statement soon and that the King Father's body would be exhibited for three months at the palace before the funeral, following royal tradition.
A national week of mourning will begin on Wednesday, Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said today.