Local and foreign dignitaries offered their condolences to the royal family on news of the death in Beijing yesterday of King Father Norodom Sihanouk, who led his country out of colonial rule in the 1950s and went on to play a leading role in the country’s modern history.
Son Soubert, a former politician, statesman and adviser to the late King, said he would be remembered first and foremost as the father of Cambodia’s independence from France in 1953.
“It is a great loss for Cambodia and for the Cambodian people, who revere him. He is known as the father of independence in the country and of its territorial integrity,” he said.
Mr. Soubert said the King Father would also be remembered as a founder of the Non-Aligned Movement. Formed in 1961, the group defied geopolitical pressures to take sides at the height of the Cold War and brought together such world leaders as Josep Broz Tito of Yugoslavia, Jawaharlal Nehru of India, and Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt.
Until his death yesterday, Mr. Soubert said, the King Father was the last surviving founding member.
Prince Sisowath Sirirath, whose father, Sisowath Sirik Matak, played a pivotal role in Norodom Sihanouk’s ouster as Cambodia’s head of state in 1970, called the late King a “father figure.”
Hailing from another branch of the royal family, Prince Sirik Matak was among those passed over when King Norodom Sihanouk was crowned and went on to become his political rival, advocating for the U.S. ties the late King shunned at the time.
Prince Sisowath Sirirath, now a Funcinpec standing committee member, said yesterday that the two royal families had largely managed to put those divisions behind them.
“No matter what happened in the past, he is like a father figure to me and was kind to my family after he returned,” Prince Sirirath said.
Norodom Sihanouk appointed Prince Sirirath Cambodia’s ambassador to the U.N. in 1982, a post he occupied for the next 16 years.
Funcinpec spokesman Tum Sambol said the late King’s death was a loss to the country and the party, which Norodom Sihanouk founded as a resistance movement in 1981 against Cambodia’s Vietnam-backed government of the time and which in 1992 morphed into a political party under his eldest son, Prince Norodom Ranariddh. Funcinpec has been in a longtime coalition government with the ruling CPP.
“This is a very serious blow to Funcinpec members because Funcinpec was started by the King Father more than 30 years ago,” Mr. Sambol said.
Yim Sovann, spokesman for the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, credited the late King with bringing democracy to the country along with its independence.
“He brought democracy back to Cambodia, he achieved a national unity,” he said. “On behalf of the Sam Rainsy Party, we would like to express our condolences to the King’s family.”
Members of the diplomatic corps also paid their respects.
“The Embassy of the United States of America in Phnom Penh extends its deepest condolences to His Majesty King Sihamoni, the entire Royal Family, and all the people of Cambodia on the passing of His Majesty King Father Norodom Sihanouk,” the embassy said in a statement.
“Cambodia has lost a leader who dedicated his life to the cause of national peace and stability. This is a time of tremendous grief for the Cambodian people, and we share in your mourning.”
The retired King shared a rocky relationship with the U.S. over his efforts to keep Cambodia out of the second Indochina war and, to the end, he blamed the CIA for his ouster as chief of state in 1970.
China, which took Norodom Sihanouk in after his ouster and where the former King settled in his old age to receive medical treatment for prostate cancer, offered sympathies as well.
Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping expressed his condolences to Queen Mother Monineath in Beijing in person yesterday, according to China’s state news agency Xinhua, and called the former King an old friend of the Chinese people who had helped forge strong relations between the two countries.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda sent a statement of condolence to Prime Minister Hun Sen.
“He [the King] built a foundation for the relationship between our two countries for the future…and deeply understood Japan’s contribution in seeking peace for Cambodia,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter and Simon Lewis)