A Long Farewell to Sihanouk

If I were the feared ruling party nomenklatura in Phnom Penh, I might be worried about security. The little people are able to congregate in such vast numbers, at least half a million yesterday, with a million expected next Monday, they might easily be supposed able to overcome the repressive regime here like a human tsunami.

But that's unlikely to happen, as opposition leaders like Sam Rainsy, who has issues of his own, are in exile or in jail, and their followers seem helpless to organize against the weight of the ruling party machine, which controls all the guns and munitions. The talons of the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP), the former communist party, extend in all directions.

The pounding of thousands of feet and slapping of thongs, in the pre-dawn darkness last Friday may have sounded ominous, as the people make haste to find a front row seat on the curbside for Sihanouk's final passage through the usually rubbish-strewn streets, but effective opposition is almost nonexistent to the repressive regime of strongman Hun Sen, in power for most of the years since it was installed by the Vietnamese army in 1979, which did push out the murderous Khmer Rouget.

Still, it did sound to older Cambodians Friday as if earlier wars, or bloody internal coups, had somehow returned to its capital's streets, as a dozen venerable but well-turned out howitzers fired not one, but two, earthshaking 101 gun salutes at the confluence where the Tonle Sap river meets the mighty Mekong in front of the royal palace in the capital. Blank shells, interestingly, were supplied by Vietnam. Having covered the previous wars, I watched Cambodians tremble once again as they heard once more the ear-splitting sound of shells.

They lined the streets of the capital as a elaborate chariot carried the body of former King Norodom Sihanouk, who was by far the most prominent figure of Cambodia in the later 20th century, and who was active in politics and the non-aligned movement for almost 70 years, through the streets of silent Cambodians, where the only sound was that of muffled weeping and mourning.

The cremation of the much-revered king, who died on Oct. 15 of a heart attack in Beijing at the age of 89, is expected to attract one million, and there will be a dozen heads of state, including Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, French prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, and Asean leaders for the cremation at Veal Mean, the park in front of the National Museum next door to the Royal Palace, which Sihanouk's body left for the last time Friday, for a final drive through the throngs of his impotent supporters in this capital.

It was a fairy-tale display, with exotic trappings from Hindu mythology and religious ministrations of Brahman priests from the dark recesses of the Royal Palace. There were soldiers from olden days in curious Prussian-like helmets, 90 Buddhist monks, a band with instruments supplied by the Chinese government which leans heavily on Cambodia these days, and usually sends guns and helicopters, and both men and women in white, the Buddhist color of mourning, though foreign diplomats and journalists were permitted dark clothes with white armbands.

A helicopter like an updated version of the Vietnam era 'Huey' hovered over the procession as it made its way on its stately course from the royal palace back to the national museum next door.

There were also exotic live Apsara or heavenly angels as seen on the walls of Angkor Wat in Sihanouk's golden colored and altogether mind-blowing hearse, adding a bit of decoration for a man who admitted in interviews with me and others that he had been a 'playboy' in his youth..

Hun Sen, looking somewhat uneasy, took his place in a second open chariot. Also participating were the second and third figures in the pro-Soviet, pro-Vietnamese regime of former Khmer Rouge who rule Cambodia, (the pro-Chinese faction of frail Khmer Rouge leaders is, of course, on trial) although one of ruling former Khmer Rouge, Chea Sim, who is in poor health, skipped the ride, while former Khmer Rouge military leader Heng Samrin was there with the maximo lider, as they say in Cuba.

"I'd be uneasy if I were him," said one foreign resident at the events yesterday, referring to Hun Sen. "He knows he has plenty of enemies." Hun Sen's advice on what to do with the past is, rather than a tribunal, 'dig a hole and bury it.'

In fact, though the ruthless Hun Sen may call himself the 'strongman of Cambodia,'compared to him Sihanouk was a political Titan, with his peaceful drive to independence from Paris and efforts to keep the Vietnam War from spreading to Cambodia, which until 1970 under his rule was known as an 'oasis of peace.'

And it was a place of for the most part peace, until Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger spread their war across the border in 1970, bringing ruination to one of the world's most pleasant nations.

Hun Sen is better known for encouraging land-grabbing for cronies and CPP party bigwigs, and leasing Cambodia's islands for 99 year leases to Russian, South Korean and Chinese entrepreneurs.

This is not to say Sihanouk did not make some awful mistakes, such as thinking he could control the Khmer Rouge, a fanatical Maoist group under whose rule in the 1970s 1.7 million Cambodian died, when in fact he couldn't, Sihanouk suffered for that as well as millions of ordinary civilians - the Khmer Rouge killed five of his 14 children besides many other victims while keeping him under house arrest in Phnom Penh under their 'Year Zero' philosophy.

In fact, since Sihanouk's death, vast numbers of Cambodia's mostly rural population have openly demonstrated their affection for the late king, not just oldsters but younger adults and even youths and children, and a sense of fear with regard to their attitude to the three CPP leaders, whose portraits together are displayed in every town and village in Cambodia, a kind of latter day 'Big Brothers are Watching You.'

Standing Friday in the square fronting the brilliantly illuminated palace, a 70 year old worker and Khmer Rouge period survivor told me: "You know, King Father Sihanouk really did something for this country. The most important thing was winning independence from France (in 1953) without having a devastating war, such as they had in the anti-colonial struggles against the French in Vietnam and Laos. And he's always put the interests of the country first."

King Sihamoni, son of Sihanouk and his consort, Monineath, has been busy pardoning 413 prison inmates to mark the occasion of these religious ceremonies around the late king. When I spoke to the monarch briefly Friday in the special 'cremation' temple outside the museum I wished him 'Bon Courage.' He knows he'll need it.

When the tributes to Sihanouk, the 'Papa King,' are all over this week, the attention of Cambodians will focus on the July general elections. Hun Sen is almost certain to win again, unless the regime changes its tune, or enough Cambodian buy the freedom of the little sparrow-like birds in cages which you can pay to release and wish a wish. Most Cambodians would wish for a clean and democratic election process but, alas, that does not look like appearing meantime.