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Asia Today ISSN 1861-4604 Friday, October 20, 2017

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Former Cambodian ruler Norodom Sihanouk dies

He belonged to Cambodia and to history

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PHNOM PENH, Cambodia - Cambodia's revered former ruler Norodom Sihanouk, who was a towering figure in the country's politics through a half-century of war and upheaval, including the Khmer Rouge reign of terror died Monday. He was 89.

Sihanouk died on Monday in China of a heart attack, leaving the nation in deep mourning.

"King Sihanouk did not belong to his family, he belonged to Cambodia and to history," said his longtime personal assistant Prince Sisowath Thomico of the former monarch who abruptly quit the throne in October 2004, citing old age and health problems.

"It's painful. I am full of sorrow," he said.

Sihanouk is set to be brought back to his homeland on Wednesday. His son and current king Norodom Sihamoni and Prime Minister Hun Sen, both appearing tearful, traveled to Beijing to collect the body, which will lie in state at the royal palace for three months ahead of a lavish funeral.

Some 100,000 people are expected to line the streets of the capital to pay tribute during Sihanouk's final homecoming. A week-long official mourning period has been announced, government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said.

Sihanouk was a flamboyant monarch, politician, film and music maker and painter. He brought his ancient kingdom through independence from France, war and genocide to form a fragile democracy.

He fielded a palace soccer team and led his own jazz band. His large appetite extended to fast cars, food and women. He is said to have married six times and fathered 14 children.

The inevitable rivalries between different consorts and their sons, remained a problem for the rest of his life. Monique Izzi, daughter of an Italian father and a Cambodian mother, was his principal partner from the late 1950s.

Born in 1922, Sihanouk was an only child whose parents were estranged. He was educated in Saigon and Paris, and came to the throne as a shy student of 19 in 1941 when the French colonial authorities decided on him rather than relatives closer in line to the throne.

He gained Cambodia's independence 12 years later and abdicated shortly afterwards for the first time in favour of his father Prince Norodom Suramarit.

He organized a mass political party and steered Cambodia toward uneasy neutrality at the height of the Cold War. He accepted limited U.S. aid and nurtured relations with Communist China. He was also a founder of the Non-Aligned Movement.

He served as premier half a dozen times, until finally becoming "head of state" following the death of his father in 1960.

He was toppled in a coup by US-backed general Lon Nol in 1970, prompting his pact with the Khmer Rouge that would have disastrous consequences for the country and his own family.

The Khmer Rouge used him as a figurehead. They seized power before putting him under house arrest in the royal palace with his household during their murderous 1975-79 rule.

The fanatical communist regime caused the deaths of up to two million people, including five of Sihanouk's 14 children.

Sihanouk, who was close to Chinese revolutionary leaders Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, fled to China. The Vietnamese invaded and toppled the Khmer Rouge.

He was to spend increasing amounts of time in China as his health failed and remained a staunch supporter of China. He saw it as a "second home" and spent much of his time there, accompanied by his devoted sixth wife Monique.

The royal battled illnesses including cancer, diabetes and heart problems in his later years.

Sihanouk was credited with helping to make 1991 UN-sponsored peace accords possible. He triumphantly regained the throne in 1993.

After abdicating for the final time, he received the title of "King-Father" to a people he referred to as his "children". more...

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