King Norodom Sihanouk led a brief, low-key ceremony Monday to mark the 45th anniversary of the country’s independence from France.
The monarch laid a wreath and lit a commemorative flame at Phnom Penh’s Independence Monument, accompanied by the co-ministers of defense, CPP member Tea Banh and his Funcinpec counterpart Ea Chuor Kimmeng. No other members of the government were invited to attend, at the King’s request.
“Today we hold a celebration…to those heroes and heroines who died a long time ago and who sacrificed their lives for the independence, sovereignty and peace of the country,” the King told a crowd of several hundred spectators.
The monarch did not speak of the country’s ongoing political crisis. Opposition party officials indicated Monday that they would not attend a summit in Phnom Penh aimed at breaking the post-election deadlock and forming a new government. The King had offered to provide security for the opposition.
Cambodia gained independence from France in 1953, after more than 100 years of colonial rule from Paris. A young King Sihanouk was to play a major role in negotiating the country’s path to independence. He abdicated his crown in 1955 in favor of his father, Norodom Suramarit, and went on to lead a number of governments until there was a US-backed coup in 1970.
While the King is generally revered for his role in gaining independence, a Khmer-language newspaper on Monday attacked him for his part in another period of Cambodian history, when he was nominal head of state during the Khmer Rouge’s bloody 1975-79 regime.
The independence anniversary remains a key festival for the monarch, but this year the King requested a small-scale event, a national festival official said Monday.
“The committee had at first planned to gather about 50,000 people with banners,” said Chea Kan, deputy director of the National and International Festivities Committee. “But it was reduced at the request of the King.”
King Sihanouk told the crowd he wanted people to be able to enjoy the holiday season and not feel obliged to attend the independence ceremony. The holiday ended seven days of festivities which began with the annual Water Festival last week.
“The people should be free to go wherever they want during the holiday season,” the King said. Attending the ceremony should be a matter of personal choice, he said, not a compulsory event.
Chea Kan confirmed that only the two co-ministers of defense had been invited to the ceremony but added that civil servants from several ministries would join in a closing ceremony on Wednesday to extinguish the commemorative flame.
Representatives from other ministries also went to the Independence Monument on Monday afternoon to lay floral tributes.
One onlooker at the morning ceremony praised the King for his pivotal role in bringing about Cambodia’s independence and harked back to what he described as a golden era in the 1950s and 1960s under the King’s leadership.
“At that time Cambodia was known as the Island of Peace,” said Hean Sokhom. “Most of the country was developing, especially education.”
Another spectator expressed doubt, though, as to whether Cambodia had truly achieved its independence.
“The country is still indirectly influenced by new-style colonization,” he complained, claiming many present leaders are under the influence of foreign powers.
Members of the international diplomatic corps were not invited to the ceremony.
Monday’s ceremony was likely the monarch’s final public appearance for some months, as he is due to leave Cambodia on Friday for medical treatment in Beijing.
The King is expected to undergo two months of tests in the Chinese capital.
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