Cambodia's ailing former king Norodom Sihanouk, his country's dominant figure for half-a-century, vowed Sunday at a rare public appearance never to leave his homeland again.
Sihanouk, his son King Norodom Sihamoni and Prime Minister Hun Sen shared the podium at a ceremony marking the 20th anniversary of the former monarch's return to his homeland after years of civil war.
The occasion may mark a last hurrah for Sihanouk, one of the giants of postwar Asian politics and the nonaligned movement of Third World countries.
In recent years, Sihanouk, who turns 89 on Monday, has suffered from colon cancer, diabetes and hypertension, and spent most of his time in China. He returned Thursday from his latest three months of medical treatment in Beijing.
The celebration of his Nov. 14, 1991 return was held Sunday in order to also mark his birthday Monday.
Tens of thousands of people turned out to attend the ceremony held in front of the royal palace in the capital, Phnom Penh. His picture and slogans were displayed there and along the city's main streets.
"I have the great honor to inform our lovely compatriots that from now on, despite still having health problems and needing routine checkups by my Chinese medical team, I and my wife, the queen, have decided to stay forever with our compatriots inside our country," Sihanouk said with a smile, eliciting cheers from the crowd. He said if the need arises, he would ask his Chinese doctors to come to Cambodia to attend him.
Sihanouk has a mixed legacy. He was admired for steering his small nation clear of the war in neighboring Vietnam for many years by deftly playing one side off against the other until he was overthrown by a U.S.-backed coup in 1970.
He then fatefully allied himself with the communist Khmer Rouge, who waged a bitter struggle for power against the U.S.-supported regime until taking over the country in 1975 and plunging it into the "Killing Fields" of bloody purges and misrule that left an estimated 1.7 million people dead.
Sihanouk's support in the early stages won many adherents to the Khmer Rouge among ordinary Cambodians as well as diplomatic support
He became a mute prisoner in his own palace until a Vietnamese invasion ousted the Khmer Rouge in 1979. Appalled at what the Khmer Rouge did to his country, he still fell into an uneasy tacit alliance with them against the Vietnamese occupation, with a new round of civil war coming to a formal end only with the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1991.
Sihanouk was still held in high regard by many Cambodians when he came back home again and seemed set to provide at least moral leadership as the country rebuilt itself.
But Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge who came to power with the backing of Vietnam and kept his position as prime minister after the peace accords, proved to be a tough and wily political rival.
He deftly sidelined Norodom Ranariddh, another son of Sihanouk who had been co-prime minister, and consolidated power in his own hands, marginalizing Sihanouk with threats to abolish the monarchy.
In 2004, Sihanouk abdicated in favor of son Sihamoni, a retiring reluctant monarch who posed no threat to Hun Sen. The prime minister maintains an iron grip over the country within a democratic framework while brooking no challengers.
Hun Sen on Sunday praised what he described as Sihanouk's idea of national reconciliation.
"Under the former king's leadership and along with the government, a win-win policy was implemented that has brought us full peace and national reconciliation," Hun Sen said.