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Cambodia braces for biggest royal funeral in half a century

Published: 16-Oct-12 06:21PM

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Funeral procession for the late King Suramarit, father of King Father Norodom Sihanouk, in 1960

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Prince Norodom Sihanouk (right) at the cremation pavillion of his late father, King Suramarit, in 1960


PHNOM PENH (Cambodia Herald) - The funeral for King Father Norodom Sihanouk, who died in Beijing Monday, is expected to be the biggest royal funeral in Cambodia in at least half a century, observers say.

A foreign historian, who asked not to be named, noted that Sihanouk's mother Queen Sisowath Kossamak was the last senior member of the Cambodian royal family to die in 1975.

She died in Beijing, where Prince Sihanouk had been living in exile for five years, and her ashes were returned to Cambodia by the prince under Khmer Rouge escort.

The funeral for Sihanouk's father, King Norodom Suramarit, who died in 1960, was a much more public affair.

His death on April 3 was greeted by a salvo of 66 cannon shots at 12:40 p.m., according to "A Nation in Mourning", a special issue of Cambodian Commentary dated April-May, 1960

During the afternoon, three days of official mourning were declared and flags were lowered to half mast with public performances of music, theater and cinema prohibited.

Members of parliament and government officials were ordered -- and members of the public "recommended" -- to wear signs of mourning, the bimonthly said.

In the evening of April 3, the body of the king was transferred from the Khemarin Palace where he died to the Preah Moha Montir Room, the traditional resting place for deceased monarchs located behind the Throne Room.

Sixty-six monks were in attendance as Queen Kossamak and Prince Sihanouk sprinkled lustral water on the body.

After kneeling for a long period, the queen and prince withdrew, leaving the traditional orchestra of the Royal Palace to play khlang chhnak music as eight monks prayed from midnight to dawn.

Cambodian Commentary said members of the royal family and the diplomatic corps, notably France and Laos, paid their final respects on the morning of April 4 along with government officials. Members of the public were admitted in the afternoon, the day ending with a Sadapakarn ceremony.  

On April 5, Queen Kossamak, Prince Sihanouk and Prince Sisowath Monireth attended a ceremony in which the late king was conferred the posthumous title of Preah Moha Kanhchanak Kaud.

According to former Australian diplomat Milton Osbourne. who was stationed in Phnom Penh in 1960, the funeral procession did not take place for another five months.

During this period, Cambodian Commentary noted that people "donned the conventional trappings of mourning: black armbands, white suits, black ties, additions here and there of small pieces of black and white cloth.

"Citizens of all walks of life -- cabinet ministers. government officials, professional and business men, the unassuming folk of town and country -- have all adopted some indications, however small, of the grief that is in their hearts," the bimonthly said.

Among the foreign dignitaries to pay their respects to the late king was Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, who arrived with a Chinese delegation on May 5.

"The distinguished guests made it their first duty in the afternoon of the day of their arrival to lay a wreath at the Urn containing the Royal Remains," Cambodian Commentary reported. It added that Queen Kossamak also granted the Chinese premier an audience

In a book published in 2008, Osbourne noted that until Suramarit died, wild parties in the palace were a key feature of Phnom Penh diplomatic life.

"The death of Sihanouk's father King Suramarit in April 1960 brought a sombre end both to entertainment of this kind staged in the shadow of kingly majesty and to the presence of a king on the Cambodian throne," he wrote.

"Dancing evenings continued to be held in the palace but they were never quite the same."

Osbourne also recalled the "pomp of arrangements" for the late king's cremation.

"In accordance with age-old tradition, the king's body was placed in a golden urn with mercury to hasten decomposition while a great funeral pagoda was constructed on the men or royal cremation ground in front of the National Museum.

"There, five months later and after a great funeral procession that wound through the streets of the city, Suramarit's remains were cremated.

"Some of his ashes were, according to tradition, cast into the Mekong, while others were placed in a stupa in the ground of the Silver Pagoda."

Suramarit ascended the throne in 1955 when Sihanouk abdicated. He was succeeded at the palace by Queen Kossamak.

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