I Spent Super Bowl Sunday at a Ceremony Cremating the Remains of King Father Norodom Sihanouk

It’s not every day you can start off watching the Super Bowl on TV at 6:00 AM and a few hours later see a nearly five hour ceremony for cremating the remains of King Father Norodum Sihanouk.

But because I was in Phnom Penh, Cambodia yesterday, that’s exactly what I did. No offense to Beyonce, but the cremation ceremony was by far the more spectacular spectacle. Although we were only three blocks from the Royal Palace, access was severely restricted, so my wife and I could only watch on TV. What a show it was.

All day long there were pre-produced pieces on the life of the King. As some recall, Sihanouk was yet another enormously popular foreign leader repudiated by the US government for holding views insufficiently favorable to US geopolitical interests. He was overthrown in a coup in 1970 and replaced by the friendlier (some would say US puppet) Lon Nol. It’s a long story, but that action ultimately led to Khmer Rouge dictator Pol Pot taking over the government and slaughtering two million Cambodians.

Sihanouk died at age 89 on October 15 last year while in Beijing for medical treatment.

The “Super” cremation was the culmination of a 110 day long period of tribute and mourning. At least a million Cambodians had lined the streets in blistering heat when Sihanouk’s embalmed body was returned to the country. Over the last week, tens of thousands stood in long lines for hours to pay tribute at the Royal Palace. The King was beloved as the leader who gained Cambodia’s independence from France in 1953, brought a measure of prosperity and equality to the nation and later, as the Cambodia Daily newspaper put it, “helped the nation navigate its way out of civil war in the 1990’s.”

One of the more interesting tributes to his impact came in the form of an angry full page advertisement in the English language Cambodia Daily from Dr. Beat Richner, founder and head of the Children’s Hospital Kantha Bopha. The headline was “What President Barack Obama Could Have Learned In Cambodia.” (He visited here briefly in 2008, just after he was elected President.)

The gist of it was to praise the late King by taking Obama to task for a US health care system vastly inferior to Cambodia’s free health care for children. The first Cambodian children’s hospital was built by King Sihanouk and named after his daughter Kantha Bopha who had died of leukemia. It was destroyed by US bombing during the American war on IndoChina. It has since been rebuilt and additional hospitals added to the system.

“Without Kantha Bopha thousands of children would have died and would die, month by month,” Dr. Richner says. He then points out that he was told by the US Ambassador that the US could not “contribute a single dollar to Kantha Bopha because the patients do not pay by themselves.”

In the Cambodian system Dr. Richner says, “nobody is excluded from the human right getting correct and efficient treatment. The poor is not discriminated. There is justice, there are no doctors running after money, extorting parents…No overpaid insurance companies, no unnecessary administrators and health officials taking money…Kantha Bopha is a model for the whole world how health care for children can be realized free and fair.”

The only thing the “our way or else” mindset of the US policy makers hate more than deviation from our system is when that deviation is enormously popular with the masses as were the policies of King Father Sihanouk. On the day of the cremation, that popularity was on display as virtually the entire nation dressed in white shirts or blouses and black pants.

Starting in the afternoon, dignitary after dignitary filed into the palace grounds. Many heads of state and other high officials attended the ceremony, including the Prime Minister of France and Japanese Prince Akishino. The US sent only the Ambassador. Monks in orange robes had a part in the ceremony of rituals and prayers . The uniform of the day for most attendees despite the 95 degree heat was starched whites with black armbands.

At the lighting of the coffin, fireworks erupted over the city and a 101 gun salute boomed as well.

Sihanouk’s widow, Queen Mother Norodom Monineath presided over the proceedings with the grace for which she has long been known. At her side was the her son, King Norodum Sihamoni—now only a ceremonial leader under the Cambodian constitution

As I write this morning, the TV is showing a long, solemn procession carrying the King Father’s ashes to a boat that will go to the convergence of three rivers in Phnom Penh. It’s quite a different “day-after” ritual than debating which was the best commercial during yesterday’s celebration of violence in New Orleans

The football Super Bowl, a sport played only in the United States, had by far the bigger TV audience worldwide. Sihanouk’s cremation was virtually invisible in the US media, but watched by millions here and elsewhere.

From Indo China to Iraq to Pakistan, Palestine and Iran it is this unbalanced view of the world that again and again leads the United States into ignorant, arrogant, brutal and yes, evil, foreign interventions.


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