China prepares send-off for late Cambodia ex-king

View photos
A mini-bus carrying the casket with former Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk leaves from the Beijing hospital for the airport in Beijing, China, Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2012. Sihanouk died Monday at age 89 of a heart attack in Beijing, where he had been receiving medical treatment since January for multiple ailments. His body will be flown back to Phnom Penh Wednesday. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Chinese police escorted Cambodia's former King Norodom Sihanouk's body from a Beijing hospital to the airport Wednesday morning for its return to Phnom Penh, where tens of thousands are expected to line a mourning route.

Sihanouk died Monday at age 89 of a heart attack in Beijing, where he had been receiving medical treatment since January.

Beijing traffic authorities cleared several roads and a highway as a bus decorated with yellow flowers and apparently carrying Sihanouk's body traveled to the airport with a few dozen black cars and minibuses.

Chinese state television carried live coverage of the procession while Chinese flags at Tiananmen Square and other key locations in the capital flew at half-staff.

After Sihanouk's body is returned to Cambodia, at least 100,000 people are expected to line the route from the airport to the Royal Palace, where it will lay in state during a week of official mourning.

Prime Minister Hun Sen has ordered all radio and television stations not to play inappropriately lighthearted music or programming that might disrespect the late monarch, who abdicated in 2004 in favor of his son Sihamoni.

Sihanouk's body will remain in the palace for three months, during which time the public can pay respects before it is cremated according to Buddhist ritual.

Nearly 100 Buddhist monks and nuns chanted and prayed for Sihanouk at a ceremony Tuesday at a pagoda near the Royal Palace.

"As Buddhists, we believe that our chanting and praying will help send the soul of our beloved king-father to rest in peace and be quickly reborn," said Ngoun Pheadkey, a 22-year-old Buddhist monk. He added that the ceremony was also to express gratitude to the former king for his leadership and legacy.

Bunches of flowers lay on the sidewalk against the palace walls. Several dozen people, mostly older, traveled into the capital from other provinces after hearing of Sihanouk's death.

"All the people in Kampong Chhnang province were very upset and full of regret when they heard that he had died," said Pen Sominea, 50, a cook. "Everybody wishes he had not died now and that he could have lived longer."

Sihanouk was the last surviving Southeast Asian leader who pioneered his nation through postwar independence. Like U Nu of Burma — now called Myanmar — and Sukarno of Indonesia, he tried to steer his country on a neutralist course during the Cold War.

Eventually, however, his country became enmeshed in the conflict in neighboring Vietnam, leading to his first fall from power and culminating in the murderous rule of the communist Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s, during which about 1.7 million of his countrymen perished.

His legacy became tainted because in an effort to regain his political influence, he made common cause with Khmer Rouge, though the regime never yielded power to him and killed five of his children.

After the Khmer Rouge were ousted, and Sihanouk regained the throne in 1993, he rebuilt his reputation as the conscience of his country. But Hun Sen, a tough and canny politician who had defected from the Khmer Rouge, undercut his influence, and a discouraged Sihanouk gave up the throne eight years ago. Sihanouk spent much of the rest of his life in China.

The passage of time and Sihanouk's retreat into quiet retirement in China made the once-dynamic monarch more of a historical figure than a contemporary statesman, but his passing was noted internationally.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the United States sent condolences.

From neighboring Thailand — another of the few remaining monarchies of Asia — came a note of sympathy from 84-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who like Sihanouk gained the throne in the 1940s.

An effusive tribute came from President Francois Hollande of Cambodia's one-time colonizer, France. The countries retain friendly ties.

"I salute the memory of a great man who embodied the destiny of his country and his people, through the hardships of the most terrible events of the twentieth century, and the construction of peace, where he always found France at his side," Hollande said in a letter.