Authorities in Phnom Penh are expecting at least 100,000 people to line the city’s streets today as the body of King Father Norodom Sihanouk arrives back in Cambodia and embarks on a 10-km procession from the airport to the Royal Palace.
The return of the retired King—who died aged 89 of heart failure early Monday morning in Beijing—will herald the start of a week of national mourning, during which entertainment venues are being asked to tone down revelry out of respect to the late King Father.
A statement issued by the Council of Ministers yesterday announced that the week of mourning would begin today and end on October 23.
“During this time, all government and private organizations and the public nationwide, must lower the national flag to a third of its normal height,” the announcement said.
It also orders “national and private TV and radio stations, as well as concert venues, bars and nightclubs, to suspend any joyful activities during the seven days.”
As part of the week of mourning, people are being asked to wear a black ribbon on their clothing to remember the late monarch and to put up pictures of Norodom Sihanouk as a sign of their mourning.
After the procession finishes toward the end of the afternoon today, the King Father’s body will lie in state for at least three months during which all members of the public will be able to pay their respects. No date has yet been set for the King Father’s cremation.
“For three months, civil servants, the public and all foreigners can visit and express their deepest condolences,” the Council of Ministers statement said.
Prince Sisowath Thomico, the late King Father’s chief of cabinet, said a special flight carrying Norodom Sihanouk’s body would arrive at about 3 p.m. today at Phnom Penh International Airport.
“Her Majesty the Queen Mother, His Majesty the King, the Prime Minister [Hun Sen] and all the government officials will be on the same plane with the body of the King Father,” Prince Thomico said, adding that Queen Mother Monineath would return to live at her and Norodom Sihanouk’s quarters in the grounds of the Royal Palace.
“We are expecting the Queen Mother to go back to Beijing from time to time for her own medical checkups,” he said. He also said he was unsure if the King Father’s overseas residences in Beijing and Pyongyang would be kept in royal hands.
While the municipality is making plans for 100,000 people taking to the streets to welcome the King Father’s body back to Cambodia, Prince Thomico said he believed the turnout for the procession could be even higher. By late yesterday afternoon, roughly 1,000 people had gathered to pray, lay flowers and write condolences in front of the Royal Palace.
“I believe it’s going to be a spontaneous movement…. They have started coming to the palace and praying at the palace,” Prince Thomico said. “There will be more and more.”
Portraits of the King Father were being hurriedly printed to adorn the streets, the palace itself and government buildings, Prince Thomico said.
Phnom Penh Municipality spokesman Long Dimanche said that City Hall was preparing for tens of thousands of people, including students, teachers and civil servants to turn out along the route from the airport to the Royal Palace.
“We have planned for 100,000 people to attend this ceremony and City Hall will be in charge of security for the ceremony,” he said.
Chea Sokhom, secretary-general of the National Committee for Organizing National and International Festivals—which is charged with arranging the public events to mark the King Father’s death—said that preparations for the procession had begun yesterday.
The grounds of the Royal Palace were already being prepared so that local and international dignitaries could pay their respects to Norodom Sihanouk after his body begins its three months of lying in state.
Mr. Sokhom also said that the Water Festival should be canceled as it would clash with events to mark Norodom Sihanouk’s death.
“To my mind, the Water Festival this year should be canceled because the ceremony will interrupt the condolences. They play music and cheer at fireworks,” he said, adding that this would be subject to a decision from Minister of the Royal Palace Kong Sam Ol, who is currently in Beijing.
Prince Thomico said such a move would be unnecessary because the official mourning period would already be over.
“It will give the opportunity to the people who are coming from the provinces to come and give their respects to the King Father at the Royal Palace,” Prince Thomico added.
(Additional reporting by Aun Pheap)