By Prak Chan Thul
PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Cambodia's former king Norodom Sihanouk, once an absolute ruler who freed Cambodia from colonialism before becoming a tragic pawn through decades of turmoil, died on Monday in a Beijing hospital. He was 89.
A pre-eminent figure in Cambodia's history for seven decades, Sihanouk however will also be remembered as a puppet kept by the Khmer Rouge during their 1970s reign of terror that killed almost a quarter of the Cambodian population.
The quixotic ruler held considerable power in the 1950s and 1960s when the young, flamboyant leader came to symbolize Cambodia's liberation from French rule in what is now seen as a golden age for an impoverished country long scarred by war.
His close aide, Prince Sisowath Thomico, said Sihanouk had died of heart failure.
"This is not just mourning by the royal family but for all Cambodians. He is the father of the nation," he said.
Flags were lowered across Cambodia and the capital, Phnom Penh, was quiet on Monday, the second day of the three-day Pchum Ben Festival, a national holiday.
His son, King Norodom Sihamoni was seen tearfully embracing Prime Minister Hun Sen before both left for Beijing on a flight that included Buddhist monks. They will collect Sihanouk's body in preparation for a state funeral in Phnom Penh.
Despite his self-exile in China, declining health and diminished influence in later years, Sihanouk still looms large over Cambodia, his portrait commonplace in homes and buildings across the Southeast Asian nation of 14 million people.
But as much as he will be remembered as the firm hand that held the young and newly independent Cambodia together in the 1950s and 1960s, memories are unlikely to fade of a man whose ill-fated forays into politics contributed to three decades of war that turned his country into a failed state.
"There can be no doubt that Sihanouk's actions and his decisions contributed to the political malaise that finally tore Cambodia apart," historian Milton Osborne wrote in his 1994 biography.
His rise came after he was chosen by France to be a puppet king to succeed his uncle, Sisowath Monivong, in 1941. He soon pushed for independence from Paris, which he achieved in 1953.
An unashamed ladies' man, amateur film director and charismatic orator adept in his native Khmer, French and English, Sihanouk endeared himself to the public.
In the late 1960s, long after he had abdicated to strengthen his own political clout, 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.
The Khmer Rouge kept Sihanouk as a figurehead and a 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.
Like most families in Cambodia, Sihanouk did not escape the tragedy of Pol Pot's reign of terror, losing five children and 14 grandchildren.
Just two years before the black-clad Khmer Rogue took power, he had posed for photos with the guerrillas who would later seek to turn Cambodia into a blood-stained peasant utopia.
At his political prime, he dealt harshly with opponents and leftists and walked a tightrope between East and West, alternately courting Washington and Moscow during the Cold War.
He upset conservatives by breaking off aid relations with the United States in 1963 and helped China ship weapons to the Vietnamese communists fighting Americans.
But Sihanouk paid the price and was toppled from power while on a visit to Moscow by Lon Nol, the U.S.-backed general who moved to thwart Vietnamese and Cambodian communists.
In 1973, Sihanouk made his biggest mistake in linking up with his former opponents in the Khmer Rouge, a pact with the devil for which he would pay dearly.
Even after the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, he supported royalists in their jungle battles against the Hanoi-backed government of Hun Sen, whose seemingly unassailable grip on Cambodian politics has never waned.
After a U.N.-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.
He abdicated again in 2004 and went to live in Beijing, where he received medical treatment for cancer and diabetes, among other ailments.
Prince Sisowath said the motivation for his abdication had been to preserve the monarchy and build a stable Cambodia.
(Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by)