Oct 15, 2012

Cambodia - Cambodia's former king dies in Beijing

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BEIJING: Cambodia's former king Norodom Sihanouk, a revered figure in his home country who had suffered from a number of ailments in recent years, died in Beijing on Monday, Chinese state media said. He was 89.

"Norodom Sihanouk has died in Beijing," Chinese state news agency Xinhua said, citing an unnamed official without giving further details.

"Our former King died at 2:00 a.m. early Monday in Beijing due to natural cause," Cambodian deputy prime minister Nhek Bunchhay told Xinhua by phone.

"This is a great loss for Cambodia. We feel very sad. The former king was a great king that we all respect and love him."

Cambodia's King Norodom Sihamoni and Prime Minister Hun Sen will fly to Beijing Monday morning to receive Sihanouk's body for a traditional funeral in Cambodia, he added when contacted by AFP.

The monarch had been a frequent visitor to China, where he received the bulk of his medical treatment. He had been staying at his Beijing residence since January.

"He had heart problems. He was very steadily declining," Sihanouk's personal assistant Prince Sisowath Thomico told AFP.

"It's painful. I am full of sorrow," he said. "King Sihanouk did not belong to his family, he belonged to Cambodia and to history."

One of Asia's longest-serving monarchs, the former king abruptly quit the throne in October 2004 in favour of his son, citing old age and health problems.

His had suffered from a series of ailments, including cancer, diabetes and hypertension as well as the heart problems.

Despite abdicating in favour of his son Sihamoni, the ex-monarch remained hugely popular in his country, with his portrait still adorning public buildings and many Cambodian homes, and he sometimes used his website to communicate with the outside world.

In a message in January, he said he wanted to be cremated upon his death and have his ashes kept in an urn inside the Royal Palace, reversing an earlier wish to be buried.

His death comes on the final day of Cambodia's annual festival for the dead, known as Pchum Ben, when most Cambodians leave the capital city Phnom Penh to spend time with their families in the countryside.

Cambodians believe their dead ancestors emerge to walk the earth during this time, and they honour and remember them with prayers and food offerings at Buddhist pagodas.

Prince Thomico believed Cambodians would find it "significant" Sihanouk had died on the ultimate day of the 15-day festival.

Twice exiled and twice returned to the throne, Sihanouk lived a life almost as turbulent as his country's history.

He was placed on the throne in 1941 at the age of 18 by French colonial authorities.

Twelve years later, he gained Cambodia's independence and shortly after, quit the throne for the first time in favour of his father Prince Norodom Suramarit to pursue a career in politics.

Sihanouk served as premier half a dozen times, repeatedly leaving the post with a characteristic flash of angry theatre over perceived slights, until finally becoming "head of state" following the death of his father in 1960.

He was toppled in a US-backed coup by one of his own generals, Lon Nol, in 1970.

Sihanouk aligned himself with communist guerrillas who later emerged as the Khmer Rouge and used him as a figurehead before putting him under house arrest in the royal palace with his family during their 1975-79 reign of terror.

He later condemned the Khmer Rouge and regained the throne in 1993, having helped push for peace.

- AFP/fa

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