Cambodia former king Norodom Sihanouk dies aged 89

Cambodians are expected to take to the streets in tribute to their former king

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Norodom Sihanouk, the former Cambodian king who was a key figure through decades of upheaval, has died.

The former king died at a hospital in the Chinese capital, Beijing, after having a heart attack. He had been in poor health for several years.

Sihanouk, who was 89, came to the throne in 1941 and led Cambodia to independence from France in 1953.

Despite long periods of exile and his abdication in 2004 due to ill health, he remained an influential figure.

Sihanouk abdicated in 2004 in favour of his son, King Norodom Sihamoni.

"His death was a great loss to Cambodia," said his assistant and relative Prince Sisowath Thomico. "King Sihanouk did not belong to his family, he belonged to Cambodia and to history."

His body is expected to be returned to Cambodia and go on display for three months in the capital Phnom Penh before an official funeral at the royal palace.

King Sihamoni and Prime Minister Hun Sen have flown to Beijing to accompany the late king home.

A statement from China's foreign ministry hailed Sihanouk as a "great friend of the Chinese people".

Japan's top government spokesman said without him "there could not have been success in the Cambodian peace process".

Political broker

Analysis

Mercurial, vain, contradictory, with an impossibly twisting career; Sihanouk was all these things, so summing up his legacy is tricky.

He was a very different King from Bhumibol Adulyadej in neighbouring Thailand, who revived a traditional, ritualistic form of monarchy in the post World War II era. Sihanouk chose instead to be a charismatic, autocratic ruler in the style of other post-colonial leaders like Sukarno of Indonesia. There was little democracy in his Cambodia, but there was little anywhere else in South East Asia.

Then there were his constant switches of allegiance, from the West towards China in the 1960s; from suppressing the Khmer Rouge in the 1960s, to allying himself with the movement in the 1970s and 80s. He was at heart a Cambodian nationalist, struggling, and often failing, to protect his small, impoverished country from the storm of the Vietnam War and the pressure from larger neighbours and Cold War superpowers.

He often promised far more than he could deliver. Sihanouk was as much at the mercy of the cruel waves of history that washed over Cambodia as were its people. From the 1960s he believed communist victories were inevitable in South East Asia, and was resigned to working with whatever regimes emerged. He was a survivor, more than a nation-builder.

He did use his authority to play a pivotal role in bringing the warring parties in Cambodia's civil war to the talks that ended the conflict in 1991. And in a country that has lost so much, he was always there, embodying the hope of a better Cambodia, freed from the turmoil of its recent history.

Born in 1922, Sihanouk was the eldest son of King Norodom Suramarit and Queen Kossamak.

Educated at French schools in Saigon and in Paris, the Nazi-controlled Vichy government in France crowned Sihanouk king of Cambodia in 1941, bypassing his father in the hope that the 18-year-old could easily be manipulated.

However, after the war Sihanouk embarked on an international campaign aimed at ensuring independence for Cambodia.

It was achieved without bloodshed in 1953 - after nearly a century of French rule. Two years later Sihanouk abdicated in favour of his father and became both prime minister and foreign minister of his country.

He tried - but failed - to keep the country from the Cold War conflict that engulfed South East Asia in the 1970s.

When a US-backed coup installed Lon Nol as Cambodia's leader, Sihanouk - by then alienated by US bombing raids on Vietnamese communist guerrillas inside Cambodia - was forced into exile in Beijing.

It was from there that he struck an ill-fated deal with the emerging Maoist rebel force, the Khmer Rouge. When the Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975, Sihanouk returned as head of state but was subsequently detained.

He remained confined to the royal palace for most of the four years of the regime's rule, during which time an estimated 1.7 million people died.

People were killed or worked and starved to death, as the Khmer Rouge emptied cities and forced Cambodians to work on the land.

Sihanouk later condemned the Khmer Rouge for the deaths of the Cambodians, including of several of his own children.

When Vietnamese forces ousted the Khmer Rouge, Sihanouk went again to Beijing. He was to remain outside the country for 13 years, as Cambodia faced civil war and the struggle to rebuild from economic devastation.

Pol Pot leads Khmer Rouge troops on 1 January 1979 Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge brought death and starvation to millions of Cambodians

When the UN in 1991 persuaded the Vietnamese to withdraw and set Cambodia on the road to democracy, Sihanouk returned, and was again crowned king in 1993.

His role was increasingly one of broker between Cambodia's warring political factions. But as the country slowly worked its way towards political stability, Sihanouk's health steadily worsened.

In 2004, he announced he would step down in favour of one of his sons, the little-known Norodom Sihamoni. The former ballet dancer was crowned king in October 2004.

After that, Sihanouk spent much of his time overseas, in Beijing and Pyongyang.

But he remained a prominent national figure who - although criticised as autocratic and elitist, and blamed by some for his initial endorsement of the Khmer Rouge - symbolised constancy through Cambodia's years of violence.

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