There were no elephants. In the past, a Cambodian royal family funeral would have featured them, perhaps even to the point of one carrying a royal casket. This time, King Father Norodom Sihanouk was carried in a jasmine covered massive gold casket, conveyed on a motorised and stylised mythical flying animal, flanked by officials and a phalanx of serious looking bodyguards.
In some ways, this massive mixing of the old and the new carries the deeper meanings of what the King Father’s passing means in the context of modern Cambodian development. It is clear that someone like Sihanouk will not be seen again. What is not so clear is what kind of a royal family and style will emerge to replace him. King Sihamoni, Sihanouk’s son and successor, is not playing and cannot play the prominent political role his father did, but the family’s revered status among the general populace in Cambodia means the profile will not disappear.
For the moment, though, this was one of the great ceremonial occasions in Cambodia, or anywhere else for that matter. Not to trivialise it, but this was a Princess Di moment – a time when deep emotions were evoked, some explained and some mysterious.
This first act in the four day cremation ceremony for the former King and political giant was planned in detail from the moment his death in Beijing was announced over three months ago. The return of his body from China was greeted by well over a million mourners, and it took the motorcade something like six hours to reach the palace from the airport, normally a journey of about an hour for mortals unattended by police escort.
Now, those months later, authorities expected well over a million mourners to again observe this funeral procession that began at the Palace, travelled north around Wat Pnomh, across to Norodom Boulevard and down to the Independence Monument, along Sihanouk Boulevard and back up Sothearos Boulevard to the crematorium site which is normally a park opposite the National Museum.
The official start time for the procession was seven in the morning, but on Sihanouk Boulevard just up from my house many, many people were already bagging a place at six. Along my little street, blocked to traffic, the tiny local food outlets were preparing for new as well as regular customers, while families in the shop houses had installed giant screens so they could watch the procession on television before nipping up to the corner when the real thing began to pass by. That proved to be about ten thirty, because the procession began leaving the Palace only after eight o’clock, marked by a booming one hundred and one gun (howitzer) salute that rocked the city.
People everywhere were dressed in black and white, most with black ribbons and/or commemorative pictures of the King Father pinned on shirts. Almost all carried the ritual flowers and decorations used in prayer. The near side of Sihanouk Boulevard was still in shade, the other in sunlight so that those sitting patiently on the curb there had papers and fans covering their eyes for what became the three hour wait. A light breeze helped keep things cool, this time of the year being about the most pleasant of all. Behind the curb sitters, skimpily dressed Westerners, apparently oblivious to what was going on, ambled about in the park that divides the two sides of the Boulevard with no apparent sense they were standing out as culturally insensitive.
The authorities had organised this brilliantly. A couple of years ago, a major stampede during another major ceremonial event resulted in over three hundred people being crushed to death on a tiny bridge. In the lead up preparations to this funeral, that incident figured in conversation a lot. As a result, there were hundreds and hundreds of people deputed off to make sure that observers had plenty of water, that the movement of people was well managed, that police and other agency personnel were all available at all points. Some were even going about distributing black ribbons to those who had lost or forgotten theirs. All of these officials handled the situation with humour and great grace, a policeman smiling apologetically as he pushed us back so the procession could pass.
Despite the numbers, as a result, there was great calm and a sense of real reverence. Genuine grief was on display, especially when the casket passed by. Norodom Sihanouk might have had a colourful life, but his passing has affected the Cambodian population, old and young. Many of them, for example, have come in from the provinces several times to pay their respects while the King Father lay in state at the Palace. That involves, for many of them, hours in buses or on the back of open trucks, and bearing the additional costs of being in the capital which is much more expensive than their home places.
A young student, standing next to me in the lead up to the arrival of the procession, asked me what Westerners thought about Sihanouk and his role over the course of his life. Good question. I said I thought many of us were aware of his role in bringing Cambodia into independence and out from under French rule in 1953, then for his stand during the 1960s and 1970s conflicts in Southeast Asia, and especially on the covert campaigns waged against Cambodia. After that, of course, it gets complicated because of Sihanouk’s search for solutions via the Khmer Rouge then affiliations with Vietnam and then, until his death, with China.
The student noted what he thought was one of the changes between what might be called the Sihanouk era and the present one. In his view, although Sihanouk had been tough and fought a corner hard, there was always room for the political “other.” That room for political debate had shrunk, the young man said, noting ironically that there was no real room for the discussion of “politics” in the university system, telling a story about a lecturer upbraided by his President for attempting to discuss contemporary Cambodian affairs with students.
By now the procession was beginning to pass by, led by a Land Rover bearing a wreathed photograph of the King Father. Land Rovers replace elephants, a suitable enough symbol for a land and nation very much in transition. Then came a stream of contingents from the armed forces, monks, ethnic tribes, traditional musicians, and two odd floats depicting all sorts of animals done in plaster. Early reports had it that people would be dressed up as animals to signify the sadness of the natural world at the passing of Sihanouk, but those evidently went the way of the elephants to be replaced by these representations. A series of other floats preceded the casket, and that was followed in turn by the present political leaders, a neat juxtaposition of the old and the new, or the former and the present.
Those looking on were very much remembering the old. Thousands of people kneeled while the casket passed, hands up in prayer and holding the flowers and prayer decorations they had retained now for several hours. Some of the older ones were in tears, wailing as their King Father passed by for the very last time. This was genuine, no rent a crowd.
Cambodia is changing all the time. At a very basic level, the skyline in Phnom Penh tells you that but so do the new hotels mushrooming in Siem Reap and Battambang, and the new enterprises supported by foreign joint ventures that are popping up all over the country. As ASEAN 2015 (or the Asian Economic Community) looms, what will happen to Cambodia in that era is becoming discussed increasingly. Cambodia’s own ASEAN role was a controversial one through 2012, and the rising presence of Chinese influence is attracting considerable attention. The aid and development donor agencies might have qualms about some forms of the transformation but continue injecting large amounts of capital. The Asian Development Bank recently signed a further $US 235 million worth of loans and grants, and that Bank is not on its own.
The Royal family’s role and influence in all of this, it is safe to say, will be well below the level of that exercised by Norodom Sihanouk in his day. But for now, as the nation farewells its King Father, its thoughts are more on what was than on what might come to be.