I first came by the Royal Palace post-Sihanouk during the day, when it was hot and sweaty, around 4:00 PM when the afternoon heat has not yet dissipated over the river. There weren’t a lot of people out there, and I was somewhat surprised: had the mourning period for Sihanouk, at least in front of the Palace, blown over so quickly?
Well, I was wrong. Turns out a lot of people were, quite logically, coming out to the Palace to pay their respects during the relative cool of the night. There have been problems with old ladies (many of them ardent fans of Sihanouk, who remember him when he was young and dashing) fainting while they do their alms and light their candles, and it’s not exactly pleasant for everyone else—so, the night-time.
It’s a beautiful scene out there at night, now: little orange candles flickering on the pavement, incense smoke rising up over the illuminated Palace and the portrait of Sihanouk, and many, many people lighting incense and laying lotus flowers in front of the royal potente’s former seat of power. I suggest you go out and see it.
Far as merchandise goes: there were no t-shirts for sale outside the palace today, but photographs and the usual assemblage of black ribbons. I am inclined to buy a photograph or two—I had the thought last night that I am very lucky to be here in Cambodia at such a pivotal time in its history.
After all, the death of Sihanouk is deeply symbolic, and many are worried that the balance of power between the King and Prime Minister Hun Sen has now been fundamentally shaken—the checks-and-balances between the two are gone, the power of the royal family officially sapped. This explains the aura of trepidation in the air. It is hard to imagine any Khmer politician being mourned in such a way, and so universally.
(As a sidenote of sorts: was explained to me last night that it’s believed in Cambodia that your soul reincarnates where you die, thus the hurry to get Sihanouk’s body home from Beijing.)
Further, Sihanouk functioned as something of a beacon of hope for many. A friend observed last night that Sihnaouk was something like “the rainbow after a storm”—he would appear whenever something went right for Cambodia, be it independence from the French in 1953, or his 1991 return-from-exile. He might flit off the scene again, returning to his well-appointed homes in Beijing or in North Korea, but he would appear when he was symbolically needed—and for most, that was quite enough.
Westerners have a decidely more cynical approach to Sihanouk, and that is logical enough: he was a deeply complex figure, he made many mistakes, and he maintained to the last a certain, discomfiting aura of selfishness—he was human, and this was a fact he able to acknowledge.
“For God’s sake! If I ran a dictatorship, then what is Lon Nol running? I renounced my throne to show the masses that there’s no such thing as divine right, that no one descends from the heavens to rule the people,” said Sihanouk in Beijing in 1973. (Quote obtained via Nate Thayer).
He called Cambodians his “children,” but we outside observers should remember that most Cambodians were quite content to fill that role, and remain so. It is my suspicion history will be kind to him. I cannot help but think of Ronald Reagan, who is becoming more and more a symbol of a better-time in the USA for many average people.
Make your intellectual arguments against these symbolic leaders all you want, but the regular people will hold onto them: and they cannot really be blamed. They are representatives of hope. There is little flinty and rational about that.