King Norodom Sihanouk, in one of his frequent Web site postings, responded Saturday to The China Post’s headline for an Associated Press story that read “Cambodians mark 50th year of independence with little to celebrate.”
“I have obtained in 1953 total independence for my Fatherland. There is a lot to celebrate, not a little,” his scrawled retort read.
Seemingly in agreement, more than 3,000 people gathered around the Independence Monument Sunday morning in Phnom Penh to mark the 50th anniversary of Cambodia’s independence from France.
The 81-year-old King arrived standing in the back of a black Mercedes convertible, greeting celebrants along the road. Queen Norodom Monineath accompanied him.
“I am very happy this year. I am proud for all my children and proud for the nation. Please, our independence, territory, integrity and national unity must remain eternal,” the King told reporters at the Independence Monument.
He went on to say that foreign countries are watching Cambodia to see whether it has the unity to develop itself.
“Our answer is that we have united. We have kept our independence, which is vital in order for us to protect and develop the country within Asia and the world,” the King said.
Prime Minister Hun Sen and Prince Norodom Sihamoni, who normally resides in Paris, also attended the event.
Prince Sihamoni stood in for his father at last year’s independence ceremony, an appearance that caused some to wonder if he was being groomed for succession. But in a letter the following day, King Sihanouk denied having any preferences on the issue.
Prince Sihamoni also sat in on a meeting convened Wednesday by the King that was intended to break the deadlock between the three main political parties.
Several people attending Sunday’s ceremony said they were pleased to see the King politically involved again.
Chea Chum, 75, held up a poster of a young King Sihanouk and said he was glad to be at the celebration, but he voiced concern over the current political climate.
He reminisced about the days of King Sihanouk’s Sangkum Reastr Niyum government. “I wish the King could rule us again. Then we would have peace, development and safety,” Chea Chum said.
Younger generations also were cheered by the King’s attendance.
“The King’s presence encourages us to be happy. Although the King is old, he is still healthy,” said Sok Theoun, 26. He added that last week’s meeting of the political parties is proof of King Sihanouk’s continuing influence. “I think the King is the only mediator who can solve the political crisis.” After lighting the ceremonial flame at the monument, the King returned to the Royal Palace where he and the Queen sat in a parade box with the King’s half-brother, Prince Norodom Sirivudh, Prince Sihamoni, Hun Sen and his wife Bun Rany, opposition leader Sam Rainsy, Senate President Chea Sim, former royalist general Senator Nhiek Bun Chhay, Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng and Senate Deputy President Prince Sisowath Chivon Monirak, among others. Foreign diplomats and other officials sat in stands below, under a hot sun.
Hun Sen delivered a speech of gratitude. “The Royal Government and the Cambodian people would like to express our profound thanks to King Norodom Sihanouk and our ancestors who sacrificed their lives, wisdom and strength for independence, integrity and territory,” he said.
Hun Sen added that the government recently published a history book detailing the liberation movement that will be used to educate younger generations.
The release of a white pigeon into the sky kicked off a lengthy parade featuring soldiers, civil servants, traditional dancers and the floats of government ministries. French Navy sailors also stood at attention in front of the palace. French President Jacques Chirac had sent his congratulations and birthday wishes in a message posted on the King’s Web site.
Speaking after the parade on Sunday, Sim Sophal, director of the Interior Ministry’s bodyguard department, said that 10,000 police officers, bodyguards and spies had been dispatched to guarantee security for the celebration.
The Vietnam News Agency reported that Cambodia’s ambassador to Hanoi, Var Sim Samreth, hosted a reception there to honor the independence anniversary. Vietnam’s Deputy Prime Minister Vu Khoan was among the officials attending. The report said that Var Sim Samreth expressed his deep gratitude to the nations that had aided Cambodia’s development and spoke of the “friendship and cooperation” between Cambodia and Vietnam being “constantly strengthened.”
(Additional reporting by Wency Leung)