KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — The family of U.S.-backed South Vietnamese ex-leader Nguyen Cao Ky paid tribute to him at a tearful funeral Friday, urging people to remember him as a man who profoundly loved his homeland.
The flamboyant former air force general was prime minister of South Vietnam for two of the most tumultuous years of the Vietnam War in the mid-1960s.
Relatives and friends flew from the United States and Vietnam for his funeral in Malaysia after he died at age 80 on July 23 from complications linked to a sudden lung infection. He had been in Kuala Lumpur for two weeks to set up a scholarship for young people to study in the United States.
About a dozen of Ky's closest family members paid their final respects by bowing three times in front of a photograph of a young Ky in military uniform placed on an altar at an upscale Buddhist funeral home.
Nearly 50 other mourners watched as Ky's third wife and children knelt and wept beside his open casket, in which he was dressed in white. Saffron-robed monks chanted prayers before the casket was sealed and draped with the flags of South Vietnam and the United States and taken away for a cremation ceremony.
"He would want to be remembered as a man who deeply loved his country and did everything he could for it," one of Ky's daughters, Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen, told The Associated Press. "I am very proud of my father."
Ky had been commander of South Vietnam's air force when he chosen as prime minister by a junta of generals in 1965, the same year U.S. involvement in the war escalated. He was a low-key but sometimes ruthless leader who crushed a Buddhist-led uprising in Danang and ended a disruptive cycle of coups and countercoups.
At the country's presidential election in 1967, Ky yielded power and served as vice president until 1971. When Saigon fell to North Vietnamese troops in 1975, Ky fled by piloting a helicopter to a U.S. Navy ship. He and his family eventually settled in the United States.
Ky made a controversial return to his homeland in 2004 after decades in exile, praising the communists — his former enemies — and calling for peace and reconciliation. Family members said Ky later split his time between his home in California and Vietnam.
Ky had a reputation as a playboy partial to purple scarves, chic nightclubs and beautiful women. Author Neil Sheehan, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his book on Vietnam, "A Bright Shining Lie," told the AP in 1989 that Ky was among a number of "corrupt Young Turks" who rose to power as U.S. involvement dramatically increased.
Ky's daughter, Ky Duyen, rejected the characterization Friday, saying he "was never corrupt, he never took a penny."
"He established the government system. He could have forced everyone to accept a dictatorship, but he gave up power for the good of the country," she said.
Ky's ashes will be flown to the U.S. on Monday for other relatives and former colleagues to pay their respects, Ky Duyen said. She added that her father had expressed his desire for his remains to ultimately be placed at an ancestral altar in his birthplace of Son Tay province west of Hanoi.
Ky was married three times and is survived by six children and, according to his memoir, 14 grandchildren.