PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Norodom Sihanouk, the revered and often mercurial former king and independence hero who helped navigate Cambodia through a half-century of war, genocide and upheaval, died Monday in Beijing. He was 89.
Throughout a life of shifting loyalties and sometimes exile, Sihanouk saw his Southeast Asian nation transformed from colony to kingdom, from U.S.-backed regime to U.S.-bombing zone, from Khmer Rouge killing field to what it remains today — a fragile experiment in democracy.
First crowned king by the French in 1941 at the age of 18, Sihanouk ruled as a feudal-style absolute monarch, but called himself a democrat. He was a cunning political survivor and a colorfully eccentric playboy with a passion for film directing, a man who sang love songs at elaborate state dinners, brought his French poodle to peace talks, and charmed such foreign dignitaries as Jacqueline Kennedy.
When the murderous Khmer Rouge seized power in the 1970s, he was reviled as a collaborator. Yet he himself ended up as their prisoner and lost five of his children to the regime. Later, in the 1990s — after a U.N.-brokered deal to end Cambodia's long civil war — he recast himself as a peacemaker and constitutional monarch.
Sihanouk had had been in China since January to receive medical treatment for a variety of illnesses he had suffered in recent years, including colon cancer, diabetes and hypertension. Prince Sisowath Thomico, a royal family member who also was Sihanouk's assistant and nephew, said the former king suffered a heart attack at a Beijing hospital and passed away before dawn Monday.
"His death was a great loss to Cambodia," Thomico said, adding that Sihanouk had dedicated his life "for the sake of his entire nation, country and for the Cambodian people."
Sihanouk had abdicated the throne in 2004, citing his poor health. The move paved the way for his son Norodom Sihamoni to take his place.
On Monday, Sihamoni flew to China with Prime Minister Hun Sen to retrieve Sihanouk's body. State flags flew at half-staff, and Cambodian government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said an official funeral would be held once the former king's body is repatriated. No date has been set.
While officials said they expected as many as 100,000 to line the route from the airport to the Royal Palace for the return of Sihanouk's body, the immediate reaction in the capital seemed muted, partly because it was a holiday, which took many people out of town.
One of those mourning was 67-year-old Yos Sekchantha, who said she offered prayers that his soul would rest in peace.
"I don't know much about politics, but the king father was really a good leader and cared about his county and people," she said as tears welled in her eyes.
But many Cambodians are too young to have emotional ties to a man who in the past two decades has been overshadowed by Hun Sen, the country's current political strongman.
In January, Sihanouk requested he be cremated in the Cambodian and Buddhist tradition. He asked that his ashes be put in an urn, preferably made of gold, and placed in a stupa at the Royal Palace.
Born Oct. 31, 1922, Sihanouk enjoyed a pampered childhood in French colonial Indochina. In 1941, the French crowned him king instead of other relatives closer in line to the throne because they thought the pudgy, giggling prince would be easy to control.
They were the first of many to underestimate him, and by 1953 the French were out.
In 1955, Sihanouk stepped down from the throne, organized a mass political party and went on to hold various positions as head of state.
Through those years, he steered Cambodia toward uneasy neutrality at the height of the Cold War and was founder of the Non-Aligned Movement.
In 1965, he broke off relations with Washington as U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War shifted into high gear. But by 1969, worried about increasing Vietnamese communist use of Cambodian soil, he made new overtures to America and turned against China.
Sihanouk's top priority was to keep Cambodia out of the war, but he could not. U.S. aircraft bombed Vietnamese communist sanctuaries in Cambodia with increasing regularity, and his protests were ignored.