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Cambodia grieves during cremation of former king

Women wept at the cremation of King Norodom Sihanouk, who had abdicated years ago, at the royal palace in Phnom Penh. Sihanouk had led his country to independence.

Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP/Getty Images

Women wept at the cremation of King Norodom Sihanouk, who had abdicated years ago, at the royal palace in Phnom Penh. Sihanouk had led his country to independence.

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Cambodians said goodbye Monday with tears, chanting, and fireworks to Norodom Sihanouk, their revered ‘‘King-Father’’ who led them through half a century of political tumult that took them into the abyss of genocidal Khmer Rouge rule and back out.

Hundreds of thousands of Cambodians thronged the capital for the elaborate royal cremation of the maddening mercurial leader whose charm often overshadowed missteps that to most of his countrymen have faded away in a fog of nostalgia for a simpler time.

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The abdicated king’s body had been lying in state since he died of a heart attack in Beijing on Oct. 15 at the age of 89.

Sihanouk’s elaborate funeral rites — mingling Hindu, Buddhist, and animist traditions — were last seen 53 years ago with the death of his father, King Norodom Suramarit. And they may never be seen again in a rapidly modernizing country where the monarchy has lost much of its power and glamor.

After sunset, Sihanouk’s son King Norodom Sihamoni and widow, Queen Mother Norodom Monineath, both weeping, ignited the funeral pyre inside a temple-like, 15-story-high crematorium. Howitzers fired salvos and fireworks lit up the sky when they exited about half an hour later. After the cremation, ­Sihamoni handed out gifts to some 400 prisoners he had earlier pardoned as part of the mourning for his father, who he said was ‘‘in heaven, near the Lord Buddha, forever.’’

The cremation took place within a walled compound where 90 Buddhist monks — one for each year of Sihanouk’s life as counted by Cambodians — chanted around the flower-decked, gilt coffin. Only the country’s elite and foreign dignitaries were allowed inside the cremation ground, along with courtiers dressed in pantaloons and soldiers in 19th century-style uniforms with spiked helmets and swords.

The $1.2 million crematorium, built just for this funeral, will be dismantled in keeping with Cambodian tradition.

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