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Cambodia's late king cremated in Phnom Penh

The body of Cambodia's King Father, Norodom Sihanouk, was cremated on Monday in Phnom Penh, nearly four months after he died in Beijing at the age of 89.

Sihanouk's cremation in the Cambodian capital comes halfway through a week of official mourning for the man widely regarded as the father of the country's independence.

Tens of thousands of Cambodians lined the streets in Phnom Penh or gathered to watch the broadcast of the cremation on television.

The funeral pyre was lit by his son, King Norodom Sihamoni, and Sihanouk's widow, and attended by numerous national and foreign dignitaries. The cremation marks the end of three days of ceremonies that began on Friday with an elaborate procession in which a gilded coffin containing Sihanouk's embalmed body was transported through Phnom Penh's streets.

Final farewell

he coffin with remains of Cambodia's late former King Norodom Sihanouk is transported by chariots as his funeral procession through Phnom Penh begins February 1, 2013. Sihanouk died at age 89 of heart failure on October 15, 2012 and his body will be cremated on February 4, 2013. REUTERS/Samrang Pring (CAMBODIA - Tags: POLITICS OBITUARY ROYALS ENTERTAINMENT TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)

Tens of thousands of mourners lined the streets for Sihanouk's funeral dirge

Early Friday, Sihanouk's body was brought out of the palace where it had lain in state since October, and placed on a gilded float, the centerpiece of the parade through the city. Flags along the riverside were at half-mast as the reverberations from a deafening 101-gun artillery salute ricocheted across the city.

The mile-long procession was the largest in living memory. Thousands of people – family, government officials, courtiers, dancers, troops and musicians – escorted the coffin along the route, which culminated at the cremation site.

Tens of thousands of Cambodians lined the boulevards, kneeling with hands clasped in reverence, as the procession wound its way along the streets and past the city's iconic Independence Monument, which stands fittingly at the intersection of Norodom and Sihanouk boulevards.

It was a grand send-off for the man whose face has for months adorned billboards in Phnom Penh, and which, for the past three days, has been on countless t-shirts, scarves and memorial pins worn by rich and poor alike.

Best of times…

A woman holds a portrait of the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk outside the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. October 17, 2012. By: Mary Kozlovski

Sihanouk is revered by Cambodians for protecting the country's independence

The high point in Sihanouk's political career was when he wrested independence from former colonial power, France, in 1953 and secured the country's territorial integrity by regaining land lost to Thailand a decade before. At the time, he was still king, having been placed on the throne by France in 1941 at the age of just 19.

However, in 1955, Sihanouk abdicated and turned to politics, founding his own political party and becoming prime minister and then head of state.

The 1950s and early 1960s were a golden age for Cambodia. Sihanouk's official biographer, Ambassador Julio Jeldres, says the late king was the driving force behind significant developments in education, health and infrastructure.

"[But] I think that his main objective in life was to keep Cambodia's territorial integrity protected, and he worked hard at that, including allying himself with people that later were going to betray him," says Jeldres.

Although Sihanouk had a genuine love for his people – even his critics acknowledge that – he was intolerant of dissent, and became more repressive as the 1960s wore on.

The golden age began to disintegrate during that decade as the war in neighboring Vietnam spilled across the border. A massive, illegal, years-long US bombing campaign caused untold destruction and helped boost Cambodia's fledgling Communist resistance, led by Pol Pot.

… worst of times

Cambodia's King Norodom Sihamoni cries as a coffin with remains of his father, the late former King Norodom Sihanouk is taken from the Royal Palace towards the crematorium in Phnom Penh February 1, 2013. Sihanouk died at age 89 of heart failure on October 15, 2012 and his body will cremated on February 4, 2013. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj (CAMBODIASOCIETY ROYALS - Tags: ENTERTAINMENT SOCIETY OBITUARY ROYALS TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)

Sihanouk's son, Norodom Sihamoni, is the reigning king

The low point in Sihanouk's career, as he admitted many times, was his decision to ally himself with the Khmer Rouge in 1970. Sihanouk took that decision, partly on the advice of China and North Vietnam, after his own government had ousted him in a bloodless coup in March 1970.

Sihanouk's support for the Khmer Rouge was an important boost for the Communist movement. However, well before the Khmer Rouge claimed victory in 1975, Sihanouk had been sidelined. During the Khmer Rouge's 1975-79 rule, Sihanouk – nominally head of state for the first year of the renamed Democratic Kampuchea – was a prisoner in his own palace. He lost several of his own children at that time, part of the toll of two million Cambodians who died during those dark years.

The alliance with the Khmer Rouge remained Sihanouk's biggest regret, says historian, teacher and writer Justin Corfield.

In 1979 the Khmer Rouge were driven from power allowing Sihanouk to leave his gilded cage in Phnom Penh. He returned in 1991, and two years later was crowned king, although, by then, Cambodia had become a constitutional monarchy.

In 2004, he abdicated, in part out of frustration that he was unable to effect the changes he felt the people needed. His son, Sihamoni, ascended the throne and remains king. It is an open secret in Phnom Penh that Sihamoni took the role out of a sense of duty to his parents. With his father gone, there is speculation as to whether he will stay on.

Sihanouk's legacy

Cambodian mourners pray for late former monarch Norodom Sihanouk during the Royal Cremation day outside the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 04 February 2013. Tens thousands of Cambodians mourners dressed in black and white pay their homage to honor former King Norodom Sihanouk on his cremation day after he died on 15 October 2012 at the age of 89. EPA/RUNGROJ YONGRIT

Cambodian mourners prayed for the late former monarch

Corfield says Sihanouk not only achieved Cambodia's independence, but should also be credited for the fact that the country's “territorial integrity and certainly its sovereignty is no longer in doubt”.

"Even though nowadays we take Cambodia's independence for granted, and its territorial integrity for granted, that wasn't so much necessarily going to be the case in the late 40s and early 50s," he said.

Prince Sisowath Thomico, a relative and long-time associate of Sihanouk, says the final political act of the late king – his abdication in 2004 – ensured that the monarchy would continue as an institution. As for his legacy, he continued, politicians would cite independence and Sihanouk's work to develop the nation during that much-missed golden age of the 1950s and 1960s.

"But for the Cambodian people at large as a whole, I believe that they will [remember] him as a leader who loved them, who had compassion for them, who understood their problems, their misery, and tried to improve their living conditions," he said.

DW.DE