The funeral of Norodom Ranariddh, the first prime minister of Cambodia post-1993, passed smoothly Wednesday morning with pomp, circumstance and little participation from the public.
A funeral procession of about 500 mourners and attendants began at Ranariddh’s home in Daun Penh district of Phnom Penh. The crowd on foot preceded and trailed a pair of floats led by monks and followed by a great wheeled version of the sacred golden bird, or hang meas, that carried the prince’s body in a casket adorned with flowers. The mourning party escorted Ranariddh down the main thoroughfare that bears his family name, Norodom Boulevard, around the Independence Monument roundabout and onto Sihanouk Boulevard to reach their destination of Wat Botum, the pagoda traditionally used for state funerals.
The day before, workers had erected a towering golden pyre decorated in the ornate, classical Khmer style, as well as two long tents for family and dignitaries to attend the cremation ceremony. Before the pagoda, rows of military and security personnel sat in rows on the Wat Botum parkway under the watchful eye of a tight police presence, including from agents positioned in concrete frames of under-construction buildings that overlooked the ceremonial site.
The tents soon filled with high-level CPP members, including Prime Minister Hun Sen, and the gathered crowd stood at attention when King Norodom Sihamoni and the Queen Mother Norodom Monineath Sihanouk arrived to pay their respects. As the ceremony neared its end, Sihamoni, the younger half-brother of Ranariddh, lit the long, crackling fuse that began the cremation of Ranariddh.
The procession to the cremation site was accompanied by hundreds of white-clad mourners both leading and trailing, as well as ushers clad in garb evoking the royal court. Flanking the procession along the far edges of the roadway, the users carried pennants and velvet-like ropes apparently intended to keep onlookers a safe distance from the march.
The precaution might not have been completely necessary though, as the procession moved relatively quietly through central Phnom Penh.
Despite Ranariddh being a former head of state as the first prime minister after the 1993 election — a post he was forced to share with Hun Sen — and the highest-profile member of the royal family to die since his father, the late King Norodom Sihanouk, few mourners observed the funeral besides those who were affiliated with it.
Prince Sisowath Thomico, a third cousin of Ranariddh and a cousin to the king, said the day was a sad one for the royal family. Though he said the events of the funeral had all gone according to schedule, Thomico said he had expected more people to say goodbye to his relative.
Thomico said some were likely concerned with Covid-19 risks but also believed there was a general lack of public information about the ceremony’s schedule, which he said was organized mainly by the government with some participation from the Royal Palace and Funcinpec, the royalist political party of which Ranariddh had been president until his death.
“There is one thing that I really regret, there was a lack of communication about the ceremony. More people wanted to come, but since there was no information as to what time the process would take place, and so on, there was not the popular support and participation that could have been expected for that kind of ceremony,” he said. “Even for us, as far as the royal family is concerned, we were very few. Even for us, it was difficult, we had to ask here and there to gather information about the ceremony.”
Thomico said he’d expected Funcinpec to gather more people as well to Ranariddh’s funeral, but said he thought “they were in the dark as well, as far as the communications were concerned.”
Of those from the public who watched either the procession or cremation ceremony for Ranariddh, some appeared drawn only by the spectacle of the event.
One man who briefly spoke with VOD, said the mourners had passed just down the street from his home. He had little to say of the event and did not give his name.
“It’s neither sad nor happy,” he said, “but I wish for him to have a next life.”
But others along the funeral route said they’d come from the outer reaches of Phnom Penh to say goodbye to Ranariddh out of a sense of admiration for the prince and his family.
Nov Sophea, 69, came in the early morning from Chak Angre Loeu commune to pay her respects. She watched the procession along Sihanouk Boulevard with her daughter and spoke passionately when asked why she had come.
“The prince was the first [prime minister] in Cambodia but later he failed. I came here because I like him and support the royal family,” Sophea said, adding that she had pitied Ranariddh since the 2018 car crash that killed his wife, Ouk Phalla, and caused him lasting health issues.
Across the street from Wat Botum parkway, where police had shut Sothearos Avenue to traffic for the funeral, more onlookers gathered later in the morning to watch the cremation ceremony.
Rithy, a 39-year-old Khmer cake seller, was among a knot of mourners gathered behind a police roadblock. He used his smartphone to take videos of the ceremony and said he’d come downtown from Sen Sok district to pay his respects and publicly mourn Ranariddh’s death.
“I feel sad for losing a good prince,” Rithy said, pointing to Ranariddh’s political legacy as co-prime minister of Cambodia.
“I feel compassion because the Royal Family is also mostly gone, as are patriots such as Kem Ley,” he continued, referencing the slain political analyst whose murder sparked a massive public display of grief much different from the muted Wednesday ceremonies. “All these good people are gone without any justice.”