Tears, prayers as late Cambodian king cremated

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Story highlights

  • Late Cambodia King-Father Norodom Sihanouk cremated Monday in Phnom Penh
  • Died last October at the age of 90, has been lying in state at Royal Palace
  • On Friday, his body was carried in a procession to a specially built crematorium
  • Sihanouk ruled Cambodia for 60 years until his abdication in 2004

The ear-splitting crack of 101 rounds of artillery will mark the final moment before late Cambodian King-Father Norodom Sihanouk is cremated Monday in a specially built crematorium outside the Royal Palace.

Sihanouk's son and successor King Norodom Sihamoni and Queen-Mother Norodom Monineath Sihanouk were set to light the funeral flame at 6 p.m local time (6 a.m. ET), almost four months after the king's death last October at the age of 90.

Obituary: Former Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk

The somber event comes on the fourth day of an elaborate seven day Royal Funeral Ceremony, which started on Friday when the late king's body was carried on a winding route through the capital Phonm Penh to the open square of Veal Preah Merhu.

"Everybody had on a pin, a brooch with a black and white ribbon and photograph of the king. People were holding photos of the king in their hands. A lot of people were crying, holding their hands in the worshiping position. (I was) very touched, very moved," said Joyce Clark, vice president of programs at the Friends of Khmer Culture from Phonm Penh.

CNN iReport: King Sihanouk's Funeral Procession

On Monday, throngs of people wearing white, the color of mourning in Cambodia, some with their heads shaved, continued to queue for their chance to file past the crematorium.

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Many were weeping and stopped to kneel, their palms pressed together and heads bowed in a sampeah, a sign of respect. Attendants ushered them on to make way for yet more mourners as the hours passed until the king's cremation.

Foreign leaders and dignitaries from 16 countries were expected to attend the Royal Cremation Ceremony, including the prime ministers of France, Vietnam and Thailand. Also present will be more than 400 prisoners who were pardoned as a gesture to mark the king's passing.

Sihanouk died while in Beijing on October 15, 2012 of natural causes, according to Cambodia's official AKP news agency. His body was flown home to the Royal Palace two days later where it had been lying in state before the weekend process.

Sihanouk reigned over Cambodia for more than 60 years before he abdicated in 2004 due to poor health, according to the king's official website.

A panel elected Sihamoni as the new king. Cambodia's National Assembly then decided to give Sihanouk the title of King Father, allowing him the same privileges he has as the reigning monarch, according to his website.

Sihanouk saw Cambodia go from French rule to independence, then to the brutal Khmer Rouge regime and the guerrilla war that followed its toppling. He then watched his country develop into the constitutional monarchy it is today.

He came from a royal lineage, but it was France that placed Sihanouk on the throne in 1941, according to the foreign ministry of Australia, which has played a key role in Cambodia's transition toward peace.

The king dissolved the nation's parliament in 1953, which helped bring about Cambodia's independence. Two years later, he abdicated the throne to his father but remained active as Cambodia's prime minister. In 1960, he became the South Asian nation's head of state following his father's death.

In the 1960s, amid a region simmering with conflicts such as the Vietnam War, Cambodia soon became home to a number of North Vietnamese training camps. That prompted U.S. air strikes on those camps in 1969.

CNN iReport: The King Father Returns to Cambodia

The following year, U.S.-backed Gen. Lon Nol declared a coup d'etat while the king was on an official visit to the Soviet Union and abolished the monarchy.

Sihanouk aligned with the Khmer Rouge, a growing ultra-Maoist group which sought to transform Cambodia into an agrarian utopia.

The king, forced into exile in China, led the resistance movement, while the Khmer Rouge gradually gained strength.

When the group, led by Pol Pot, won control of Cambodia in 1975, Sihanouk returned as head of state. But by the following year, he was placed under house arrest.

From 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge led a bloody period of mass killings, public executions and torture centers. While no one knows for certain how many people were killed by the regime, experts estimate 1.7 million fatalities -- or at least a quarter of Cambodia's population -- died from executions, diseases, starvation and overwork

Sihanouk himself lost five children and 14 grandchildren at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. He was confined to the royal palace until Pol Pot was overthrown three years later. He was away from Cambodia from 1979 to 1991.

The king subsequently became president of the new republic, but it wasn't until 1993 -- when Cambodia held its first parliamentary elections -- that the king's powers were restored and Cambodia became a constitutional monarchy.

Elizabeth Becker, the author of "When the War Was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge Revolution," told CNN after the king abdicated in 2004 that Sihanouk was "larger than life" and brought both good and bad to his country.

He tried to bring Cambodia into the modern world and protect it from its neighbors, but he brought about divisions in the process, she said.

"He threw his prestige and politics behind the Khmer Rouge when they started the rebellion and it was his name that helped convince a lot of peasants to go along with the Khmer Rouge," Becker told CNN.

"Then later, after the Vietnamese invasion, he continued to help the Khmer Rouge at the United Nations with political prestige, so his is a very checkered legacy."

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