By SOPHENG CHEANG
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) - He was many things to the Cambodia he helped navigate through half a century of war and genocide _ revered independence hero, ruthless monarch and prime minister, communist collaborator, eccentric playboy, avid filmmaker.
Most of all, perhaps, Cambodia's former King Norodom Sihanouk was a cunning political survivor who reinvented himself repeatedly throughout his often flamboyant life.
Sihanouk died Monday at age 89 of a heart attack in Beijing, where he had been receiving medical treatment since January for multiple ailments.
First crowned king by the French in 1941 at the age of 18, Sihanouk saw his Southeast Asian nation transformed from colony to kingdom, from U.S.-backed regime to U.S. bombing zone, from Khmer Rouge killing field to what it remains today _ a fragile experiment in democracy.
He ruled as a feudal-style absolute monarch, but called himself a democrat. He was a man who sang love songs at elaborate state dinners, brought his French poodle to peace talks, and charmed foreign dignitaries such as Jacqueline Kennedy.
He also painted, fielded a palace soccer team, composed music and led his own jazz band. His appetite extended to fast cars, food and women. He married at least five times _ some say six _ and fathered 14 children.
When the murderous Khmer Rouge seized power in the 1970s, he was reviled as their collaborator. Yet he himself ended up as their prisoner and lost five of his children to the regime. Later, in the 1990s _ after a U.N.-brokered deal to end Cambodia's long civil war _ he recast himself as a peacemaker and constitutional monarch.
In the twilight of his life, Sihanouk suffered colon cancer, diabetes and high blood pressure. Prince Sisowath Thomico, a royal family member who also was Sihanouk's assistant and nephew, said the former king passed away before dawn Monday.
"His death was a great loss to Cambodia," Thomico said, adding that Sihanouk had dedicated his life "for the sake of his entire nation, country and for the Cambodian people."
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon sent condolences and acknowledged Sihanouk's "long dedication to his country and his legacy as a unifying national leader who is revered by Cambodians and respected internationally," U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said.
"The secretary-general also hopes that the legacy of the former king will allow Cambodia to advance the national healing process, including through continued commitment to justice," Nesirky said.
In 2004, Sihanouk abdicated the throne, citing his poor health. The move paved the way for his son Norodom Sihamoni to take his place.
On Monday, Sihamoni flew to China with Prime Minister Hun Sen to retrieve Sihanouk's body. State flags flew at half-staff, and Cambodian government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said a week of official mourning would be held once the former king's body is repatriated on Wednesday. A cremation ceremony will be held in three months, according to Buddhist tradition.
While officials said they expect as many as 100,000 to line the route from the airport to the Royal Palace for the return of Sihanouk's body, the immediate reaction in the capital seemed muted, partly because it was a holiday, which took many people out of town.
One of those mourning was 67-year-old Yos Sekchantha, who said she offered prayers that his soul would rest in peace.
"I don't know much about politics, but the king father was really a good leader and cared about his county and people," she said as tears welled in her eyes.
Many Cambodians, though, are too young to have emotional bonds to a man who in the past two decades has been overshadowed by Hun Sen, the country's current political strongman.
In January, Sihanouk requested he be cremated in the Cambodian and Buddhist tradition. He asked that his ashes be put in an urn, preferably made of gold, and placed in a stupa at the Royal Palace.
Born Oct. 31, 1922, Sihanouk enjoyed a pampered childhood in French colonial Indochina. In 1941, the French crowned him king instead of other relatives closer in line to the throne because they thought the pudgy, giggling prince would be easy to control.
They were the first of many to underestimate him, and by 1953 the French were out.
In 1955, Sihanouk stepped down from the throne, organized a mass political party and went on to hold various positions as head of government and state.
Through those years, he steered Cambodia toward uneasy neutrality at the height of the Cold War and was a founder of the Non-Aligned Movement.
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