The first anniversary of late King Father Norodom Sihanouk’s death was marked Tuesday by heavy security in Phnom Penh, while a new statue of the beloved monarch near Independence Monument was off limits to the public for much of the day.
Protected by hundreds of military police and security guards, Prime Minister Hun Sen and senior CPP officials paid their respects at the statue in the morning, while King Norodom Sihamoni, Queen Mother Norodom Monineath and other members of the royal family held a separate, smaller ceremony at the Royal Palace.
Members of the opposition CNRP were not invited to either event and ordinary citizens were stopped by police from coming within several blocks of the statue until the afternoon.
Prince Sisowath Thomico, who served in the late King Father’s Royal Cabinet before becoming a member of the CNRP’s steering committee, said that Queen Mother Monineath on Saturday invited six CNRP lawmakers to the ceremony at the Royal Palace, but that the Ministry of the Royal Palace declined to formally invite the opposition delegation, sending only an event program to the CNRP’s offices on Monday afternoon.
“The Queen Mother was really, really upset this morning not to see the [CNRP] delegation…she took the time to make all the arrangements,” said Prince Thomico, who attended the event in the palace as a member of the royal family.
“She scolded me in public, in front of everyone, at the end of the ceremony,” the prince said. “I tried to explain to her that late last night, [CNRP vice president] Kem Sokha was still waiting for a formal decision from the Royal Palace [Ministry].”
The Ministry of the Royal Palace could not be reached for comment.
Prince Thomico, however, was more concerned with the government’s decision to prevent the public from visiting the $1.2 million bronze statue of the former King on Tuesday morning, which he said was regrettable.
Norodom Sihanouk passed away at the age of 89 on October 15 last year, prompting a nationwide outpouring of grief.
“The only remaining symbol of the unity of the nation is the King Father, so having a ceremony held to remember him should be a national ceremony where all the people from all political parties, from all civil society [groups]—from everywhere—could attend,” he said.
There has been increased security on the streets of the capital since the July 28 election, which the CPP officially won, but which the opposition says was mired in widespread fraud. The CNRP has held several mass demonstrations to protest the results and have refused to take their seats in parliament.
The heightened security, which saw police armed with AK-47 assault rifles on the riverfront in front of the palace, and cordoned off statue were a sign of the ruling party’s decreased popularity, Prince Thomico said.
“It’s an example of how frightened the CPP is right now…. They are frightened of the people of Cambodia,” he said.
National Police spokesman Lieutenant General Kirth Chantharith said the armed military police stationed at street corners, traffic police manning roadblocks near Independence Monument, and security guards patrolling the statue grounds were necessary due to the many important dignitaries in attendance.
“Because all the leaders are gathering and attending the ceremony [at the statue]…we have to pay attention,” Lt. Gen. Chantharith said, explaining the heavy security presence.
He added that anyone not explicitly invited to attend the ceremony, including the CNRP, would have been prevented from coming anywhere near the statue.
“If they are invited, we allow; if they are not invited, we not allow,” he said.
“National and military police blocked some roads because they needed to check for weapons and explosives to ensure the safety and security of the government officials,” CPP spokesman Cheam Yeap said.
Phnom Penh governor Pa Socheatvong declined to comment on the need for such security.
The CNRP said they sent a letter to the National Committee for Organizing National and International Festivals on Friday, requesting to hold their own ceremony at the King Father’s statue on Monday. According to the CNRP, the committee told the party to wait until after Tuesday’s official anniversary. Police were also stationed in force around the park on Monday at the time the CNRP had earlier planned to visit the statue.
Chhin Ketana, secretary-general of the committee, declined to comment.
Senior CPP officials who participated in the ceremony Tuesday—during which representatives of various ministries and government institutions took turns marching up to Norodom Sihanouk’s memorial flanked by an Honor Guard—said the CNRP’s decision not to participate was disrespectful.
“They cannot claim that they are not invited,” said Cham Prasidh, the minister of industry, mines and energy.
“The King is the king of all the Cambodians…now we need to at least pay our last respects to him and those who do not come it is really showing that they are not Cambodians,” he said.
“Maybe the national committee for ceremonies feel that just they have the power only to invite the ministries and state institutions, but for the political parties, its up to [them], because you can see that all the CPP, they come here,” Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith said.
Mu Sochua, the CNRP’s director of public affairs, said the party’s decision to abstain from attending the government ceremony alongside the CPP was partially in protest of the event’s exclusivity.
On Monday, the CNRP held a private Buddhist ceremony for the late King Father at the party’s Tuol Kok district headquarters.
“[Why do] we have to be together [with the CPP]? Together for what? If it [the ceremony] is only trashed by police? Can regular people go to the ceremony?” Ms. Sochua asked.
But people who flocked to the statue once the roadblocks were removed Tuesday afternoon were less concerned with waiting to see the late King Father’s bronze image than with honoring the man they had called “the cool shade” of the nation.
“I love him very much because he is the hero King of Cambodia,” said Ly Mary, 54, who traveled to Phnom Penh from Kompong Chhang province to see the monument.
“I would give half of my [remaining] years for the King Father to be alive again,” Ms. Mary said.
Chhea Sunleap, 62, said Norodom Sihanouk was unlike any Cambodian leader alive today.
“I hope all the people continue to love and respect the King Father as if he were still alive, because there is no one else like him,” she said.
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