PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- Throngs of Cambodians -- fewer and less enthusiastic than expected -- welcomed yesterday the return of Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the former god-king whose ouster in 1970 marked the beginning of two decades of war and suffering for his people.
But while Cambodians were excited to see the prince, who remains a virtual icon of Khmer nationalism and is thought to be the only figure capable of reconciling four warring factions that have torn this nation apart, the crowds that greeted him were markedly restrained.
Prince Sihanouk, 69, is still revered by some as both a king and a descendant of the gods, and his arrival is being taken as a clear sign that peace is returning. But it was difficult to escape the conclusion that people came out not to embrace the man but to examine him, to try to get a glimpse of what his presence will mean for their future.
What is now particularly apparent is the degree to which Cambodians are looking toward the United Nations, whose peacekeeping troops have started arriving to enforce a weeks-old peace accord, and not to Prince Sihanouk for salvation. He will be a key player, many Cambodians say, but only the United Nations is seen as having the authority to bring peace.
Fifteen minutes after the prince rode into the ornate, multispired Royal Palace compound in a white 1963 Chevrolet Impala with his wife, Princess Monique, and two children, the several dozen or so reporters milling about at the gates outnumbered the Cambodians.
"I'm just hanging around because I want to see the foreigners," said Chea Sakhoum, 62, as she surveyed a sea of journalists toting high-tech equipment.
When asked whether she had seen the prince, she said: "Yes, yes, I saw Sihanouk, but more important are the foreigners. People in Cambodia are very happy to see the foreigners around, because it's very difficult to live here, and the foreigners are going to help us."
Prince Sihanouk himself appeared to be overcome by emotion )) on being greeted at the airport by a U.N. honor guard and diplomats and officials, some of whom he embraced and kissed in the French style.
His return was marked by the kind of pageantry that has been missing from this country since his downfall in a coup engineered by the United States.
As Prince Sihanouk and his family sat on velvet-covered chairs, seven Khmer classical dancers knelt before them wearing bright silk sarongs embroidered with gold and gold crowns cast in the shape of doves.
orchestra of drums and brass gongs began a hypnotic serenade. The dancers moved as if floating, their arms assuming elegant positions as they scattered flower petals at the feet of the royal couple.
On the route to the palace on the bank of the Mekong River, crowds waved flags and shouted greetings. Although the government has been saying all week that 400,000 people would greet Prince Sihanouk, barely half that number watched his motorcade pass by even though the government had declared yesterday a national holiday, closing schools and trucking uniformed schoolchildren to places along the road by the thousands.
After the motorcade passed, people calmly walked back to their homes or to school. By the middle of the day, the scene in Phnom Penh was indistinguishable from that of any other Thursday afternoon, save for the Cambodian flags still in place on every balcony.