Cambodia mourns its ruthless and charming 'King Father'

  • @AndrewBuncombe

The body of Cambodia's former king, Norodom Sihanouk, will be displayed for up to three months before a large state funeral is held for the mercurial and widely loved monarch who died after suffering a heart attack.

The 89-year-old, who was given the title of King Father, died in Beijing yesterday. The Prime Minister, Hun Sen, flew to China to accompany the body back. He was joined by Cambodia's current king, Norodom Sihamoni, who ascended the throne after his father stood down in 2004. The body is due to arrive tomorrow and will then go on display in Phnom Penh.

The former king was a towering presence over Cambodian politics for more than half a century and is credited with helping the country secure independence from France.

Born on 31 October 1922, he enjoyed a pampered childhood in French colonial Indochina. In 1941, the French crowned 19-year-old Sihanouk rather than relatives closer in line to the throne, thinking the giggling prince would be easy to control, according to the Associated Press. But they were the first of many to underestimate him.

As ruthless as he was charming, he constantly shifted his allegiances and saw his country transformed from a quiet kingdom to a US-backed regime during the Vietnam War.

The American bombing campaign on Vietnamese communist sanctuaries in Cambodia is considered one of the factors in the rise of the Khmer Rouge, which seized power in 1975.

Having been ousted in 1970 in a US-backed coup, Sihanouk had fled to China. He later joined the Khmer Rouge in an attempt to regain his throne, but was placed under house arrest by the Maoist-inspired rebels.

For one year during the rule of the Khmer Rouge, he served as the figurehead head of state, something that will always represent a black mark against his name. Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said he believed around a hundred thousand people would line the streets of the capital on Wednesday to mark Sihanouk's final return.