An Enduring figure in a country marked by near-constant, often tumultuous, change and perhaps the one person able to consistently create a sense of national unity, the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk leaves behind him questions over where Cambodia is headed following his death.
As king and then prince, Sihanouk ruled his country like a father. Even once that hard power waned, in the hearts of the majority, he remained revered as the country’s last “god-king”.
But with his passing, many wonder about the future influence of the monarchy on Cambodian social and political life.
Political analyst Lao Mong Hay is worried that without a figure who held such “tremendous” moral authority amongst the public to act as a reconciler, the country could become divided.
“I think in our recent history, he is our greatest leader. Regarding his errors of judgment, they are in the past. Look, Lon Nol was nothing, Pol Pot was a disaster for us, even these days our leaders have not been able to unite the country,” he said.
“Without him around, perhaps we will become more and more polarised politically. And there is a risk of politics going extreme.”
Even as re-ascending to the throne in 1993 effectively ended his political ambitions, Sihanouk remained a figure whom Cambodia’s disparate political forces felt they had to both reconcile with and learn from.
“In terms of statecraft or rulership, I think that in Cambodia, he was the master, a great master. I've mentioned this to the King [Father], face-to-face, 'you are just a great guru and everyone should learn from you to learn statecraft or rulership from you.'”
Since Sihanouk abdicated for the second time, there have been concerns that the monarchy would quietly drift out of public relevance under the shadow of increasingly dominant and hostile political forces.
Yet of the masses who turned out Wednesday to pay their final respects as Sihanouk’s body was driven through the streets of Phnom Penh, one constant was the vast number of young people who turned out to mourn a monarch who hadn’t reigned since 2004 or wielded hard power since 1970.
Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, believes the King Father’s passing will revitalise interest in the monarchy and serve to strengthen the moral fibre of the country as the public unites in paying their respects.
“I think we can look at it in a different way than as a weakness, but as a strength, as a respect, as a restoring of culture,” he said.
“This is something that perhaps others have failed to look at or failed to understand, that we also have the role to restore, because a lot of damage has been done by war and genocide and what King Sihamoni has done is to show respect to the father.”
In years to come, said Youk, young people will remember the momentous historical event they witnessed when the King Father’s body was repatriated, and reflect on how Sihanouk contended with the near-constant struggles that confronted him throughout his life.
Youk also said that King Norodom Sihamoni, who is perceived as a far more passive monarch than his father, should be spared unfair comparisons to Sihanouk and accepted as a king that has to develop his own, unique way of reigning.
Political analyst Son Soubert, who is also an adviser to King Sihamoni, said it remains to be seen whether the King will take a stronger and more vocal role in Cambodia’s political affairs now that his father has passed, but, regardless of the path he chooses, he does not expect the country to become more polarised.
Soubert did not expect the passing of Sihanouk to radically change the way people thought of the Kingdom’s monarchy, either by sparking a royal revival or causing a feeling of disconnection from the palace.
“I don’t think people have lost any interest in the [monarchy]. We saw that in the crowds of people in the street,” he said.