During a rare public appearance on the 20th anniversary of his return from exile, retired King Norodom Sihanouk yesterday vowed to remain in Cambodia despite ongoing health problems.
Speaking on the eve of his 89th birthday before an estimated 45,000-strong crowd, the King Father, who arrived in Phnom Penh from Beijing on Thursday, said: “I have the honor of telling the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren that from now on, despite my health problems…we have decided…we won’t leave the country.
“We’ll be in Cambodia…forever. I am happy with this decision,” the King Father told the throngs of people gathered in front of the Royal Palace.
He added that he would be enlisting doctors from China, where he has received extensive medical treatment for B-cell lymphoma for the past few years, to come treat him in Cambodia instead.
“[China], please send doctors to Cambodia since [we] announced [the decision to stay] and the children clapped and agreed,” he said from a gold-colored pulpit overlooking Sothearos Boulevard, flanked by his son, King Norodom Sihamoni, and his wife, Queen Monineath.
Below, people held portraits of the King Father and waved small Cambodian flags.
The retired King thanked “the government led by [Prime Minister] Hun Sen,” but also vowed to remain active in public life.
“Even though I’m retired, I still want to help improve the nation with the government and with any sector,” he said.
“No one can destroy or weaken us,” Norodom Sihanouk said. “We will get stronger and stronger…. We are not greedy to become a powerful country; we only want to be accepted, as we are united to be strong.”
Speeches by the King Father, who announced his 2004 abdication via a letter from Beijing, are rare, although he frequently posts handwritten messages to the public on his personal website.
Addressing the crowd prior to the King’s speech, Mr Hun Sen said the turnout was uplifting, and paid homage to the monarch’s life.
“This is a precious prosperity, since in Cambodia…there has been no king that has lived as long as the [retired] King,” he said.
On Saturday night at 6:15 pm, police officials fanned out across the grass in front of the brightly lit Royal Palace, sweeping the ground with metal detectors. A fireworks display—one of three planned for Saturday, last night and tonight—began shortly afterward.
Khhin Ketana, general secretary for the National Committee for the Organization of National and International Festivals, said “about 45,000 people” comprising “officials from various ministries, members of the National Assembly, ambassadors, students and the public” attended the retired King’s speech.
Along Norodom Boulevard and around Independence Monument, both lined with portraits of the King, a stiff breeze whipped a series of flags raised in his honor. Curbs and tree trunks had been painted white.
Major General Kirth Chantharith, spokesman for the National Police, said “more than 2,000 forces from Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Bodyguard Unit and police officers were dispatched” to handle security operations.
“We didn’t have much concern about security during the ceremony,” he said. “However, law enforcement officers had to pay a lot of attention, because if anything happens, it affects national security and the economy.”
(Additional reporting by Phok Dorn)