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Cambodia's former king dies in Beijing

Cambodia’s former king Norodom Sihanouk passed away in Beijing at age 89.

Former Cambodian King, Norodom Sihanouk died in Beijing on 15 October 2012. Picture: AFP/FILES/Tang Chhin Sothy

PHNOM PENH - Cambodia's former king Norodom Sihanouk, a widely respected figure through decades of turmoil, died in Beijing on Monday, according to an announcement on national television. He was 89.

Sihanouk was a pre-eminent figure in Cambodia's history through a large part of the 20th century. He held considerable power in the 1950s and 1960s when, as a young, flamboyant ruler he held absolute authority and came to symbolise Cambodia.

He reigned over Cambodia from 1941-1955 and from 1993-2004.

Sihanouk died of natural causes in the early hours of Monday in a hospital in Beijing and his body would be returned to Cambodia for a funeral at the Royal Palace, the statement on national television said.

In the late 1960s, Sihanouk was powerless to stop his country's slide into the Vietnam War and the 1970s Khmer Rouge "killing fields", under which at least 1.8 million people died during Pol Pot's ultra-Maoist revolution.

He abdicated for the second time in 2004 to make way for his son, Norodom Sihamoni, and went to live in self-imposed exile in Beijing, where he had for years received medical treatment for cancer and diabetes, among other ailments.

After a long period of exile and a UN-brokered peace treaty that led to a shaky transition to democracy in the early 1990s, Sihanouk became a figurehead king with limited power. The fate of the monarchy, and the country, then rested with Hun Sen, the current prime minister.

Sihanouk was seen as a symbol of national reconciliation and unity when he retook the throne. Throughout his life he enjoyed the genuine affection of the majority of his people, particularly in the countryside, but he always had enemies in politics.

During a trip to Moscow in 1970 Sihanouk was ousted in a bloodless, right-wing coup led by General Lon Nol, who cranked up the war against Vietnamese and Cambodian communists.

Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge held Sihanouk prisoner in his own palace after their 1975 victory, which ushered in four years of brutality under which almost a quarter of the population died of starvation, disease, execution or torture.

Sihanouk lost five children and 14 grandchildren during the Khmer Rouge reign of terror.

He was forced back into an uneasy coalition with the Khmer Rouge after they were ousted in 1979.

Through the 1980s, the Khmer Rouge and Sihanouk's royalists battled Vietnamese troops and the Hanoi-backed government that Hun Sen eventually led.

Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said on Monday Sihamoni would fly to Beijing to collect his late father's body.

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