Night Mourners in Cambodia – The Moon Effect

The people do not stop coming to mourn King Sihanouk. My sources say that the ruling party may not be particularly chuffed about it: an up-swelling of support for the fading, toothless royalty, what was once the most potent counter-balance to Hun Sen and the CPP.

The monks are there, of course—hopefully grown accustomed to us Western voyeurs (and Khmer journalists, it must be said) putting cameras in their faces at all suitable moments. They meditate in the rain and organize themselves in groups outside. They are probably looking for karma. That is the motivation of most of the people out there, I suppose. That and a curious, once-in-a-lifetime social event.

A Khmer friend said he was surprised to see so many teenagers out there. He split the groups of mourners into three: those in their 50s and older, who remember the golden era of Sihanouk. (The government asking for the opinion of the little people! Shining movie theaters, rock-music, visits from Jackie O! A modern Asian nation, the shining little Paris of the East! Avenues of trees, and an elephant that lived in the park!)

Then there is the generation right behind them, who suffered the Khmer Rouge and remember it with painful clarity. Fewer of them, likely, are ardent supporters of Sihanouk: they know that he allied himself with the KR in an effort to wrest back power from Lon Nol, and they remember the divisiveness of 1997, the post-war years. They do not have clear memories of that 1960s counterbalance, when things clearer: their minds cast back more clearly to a bloody, deprived recent past.

Which leaves us with the kids, Cambodia’s most-liberated generation, who buzz around town at ridiculous speeds on Scoopy scooters, who dress themselves in the latest fashions and make out delicately in the park. Their memories of the KR years are non-existent: things have been OK for them, mostly, and are (mostly) getting better as the years go by. What would they care about Sihanouk and the voices of the past? Why do they come out in droves?

Perhaps they are influenced by their parents, their grandparents, who have told them about the old days. They are not foolish: they understand the gravitas of the situation. Sihanouk is an abstract proposition to them, but god-kings are of necessity abstractions, especially when they have died.

Sihanouk is in the moon now, apparently: it came out at midday yesterday and people gathered in the streets marveling at it, craning their necks back.

“Every culture sees different things in the moon,” I told my friend. “In the USA, it’s a man in the moon.”

“Yes,” he said. “They saw Chairman Mao in China. They see a rabbit here.” (Well. Most of the time, it’s a rabbit. Unless it is King Sihanouk.)

A Khmer scholar told me that the people saw Sihanouk in the men back in the 50s and 60s, when they had won independence from France and the god-king in making was on the rise. This was when the people were more superstitious, he said.

The guestbook is overflowing – I imagine they are collecting hundreds upon hundreds of the things. I would love to read the entries. People jostle each other to write something in.

The palace is obscured by grey incense at night, and likely during the day, as well. The smell pervades my clothes whenever I come back from taking photos and I welcome it. The smoke mingles with the lights of the palace and is rising, ultimately, upwards – towards the moon, it looks like.

One thought on “Night Mourners in Cambodia – The Moon Effect

  1. Sihanouk was regarded as, essentially, an example of “fading, toothless royalty” by the French who saw him a easily malleable shortly before he declared independence and threw them out. King Sihamoni was very close to his parents – was with them under house arrest during the KR period – and demonstrated a real affinity for quiet diplomacy as an envoy between his father and the Prime Minister during difficult times years ago. Though many international observers have dismissed the King as weak and irrelevant, time will tell. Time will tell.

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