Amid Latest Sex Scandal, Many Recall Piseth Pilika

Piseth Pilika was the most famous classical dancer and actress in Cambodia. A film starlet in the 1980s, she reached new levels of fame in the 1990s as the face of the booming karaoke music-video industry.

So her gruesome murder on the morning of July 6, 1999—gunned down in front of Phnom Penh’s O’Russey market while standing beside her 7-year-old niece—sent shock waves through the country, not least because no one was ever arrested.

cam photo pilika
Piseth Pilika

Rumors swirled in the following months that the star had been ordered killed by the wife of a high-ranking official who was infuriated after discovering she was having an affair with her husband.

Then the popular French weekly L’Express dropped a bombshell: an article built around diary entries written by Piseth Pilika, apparently recounting her yearlong tryst with Prime Minister Hun Sen and the discovery of the affair by his wife, Bun Rany.

The story quoted poems allegedly written by Mr. Hun Sen to Piseth Pilika, and the diary mentions gifts he gave her, including a house in Phnom Penh and hundreds of thousands of dollars deposited into a bank account, funds which the diary says Ms. Rany froze.

The prime minister and first lady staunchly denied the claims, blaming opposition leader Sam Rainsy for fabricating the story—Mr. Rainsy’s sister-in-law worked for L’Express—but never followed through on their public threat to sue the magazine for defamation.

The salacious story has suddenly resurfaced in online discussions over the past month as a group of students and, more recently, Mr. Hun Sen himself, have run a campaign to rebuke deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha for his own alleged recent mistresses.

With some claiming government involvement in the release of dozens of phone recordings purporting to be of Mr. Sokha and his lovers—and Mr. Hun Sen even claiming to possess photo evidence on his smartphone— information about the prime minister’s own alleged affair is being spread among a mostly young population of social media users.

A section of a documentary featuring the crime scene after Piseth Pilika’s shooting, for example, has been shared more than 13,800 times and viewed 370,000 times on Facebook since it was posted by the anti-government “Daily News” page on March 9—a week after the first alleged recordings of Mr. Sokha’s calls leaked.

Then last week, after Anti-Corruption Unit chairman Om Yentieng launched an official inquiry into how Mr. Sokha got the funds to promise his mistresses houses, Chham Chhany, who curates a popular opposition Facebook page, publicly noted the double standard.

“Unique in the world: The Anti-Corruption Unit investigates love stories,” the post says, going on to ask why the Piseth Pilika case did not receive the same level of scrutiny.

“Why don’t you investigate that?” asked Mr. Chhany.

The popular “I Love Cambodia Hot News II” page also posted a photograph of the group of students who have led the campaign against Mr. Sokha.

“I’m wondering! Why hasn’t this group demonstrated in search of justice for Piseth Pilika, Pov Panhapich, Touch Srey Nich as well?” the page asked, referring to two other starlets shot after rumored affairs with high-ranking officials, leaving them both partially paralyzed.

While no evidence has come to light to prove that Mr. Sokha ever actually bought homes for his alleged mistresses, a trove of documents purporting to show Mr. Hun Sen’s largesse was released on the Internet in 2002.

Three years after the publication of the L’Express article, Piseth Pilika’s sister Sao Davina released the documents onto a purpose-built website, claiming they proved Ms. Rany’s role in the killing.

The website remains online today and includes scanned images of bank slips for amounts of $100,000 and $50,000 deposited by Piseth Pilika under her birth name, Sao Pily, and pages of the diary, which claimed that the gifts came from Mr. Hun Sen.

(Canadia Bank, with which the deposits were allegedly made, said on Sunday that it could not comment on the veracity of the scanned bank slips, citing policies on customer confidentiality.)

The scans of the diary entries also recount Piseth Pilika’s concerns about Ms. Rany’s alleged anger at discovering her romance with Mr. Hun Sen, along with claims she was forced “to give back two houses Samdech Hun Sen gave to me to his wife.”

“On Monday, April 26, 1999 at 7:30 a.m. I went to draw my money from Canadia bank but they closed it and did not process the money for [me] because there was a order from Bun Rany, not allowing it given to me because it’s money her husband gave,” one diary entry says.

“The total money was [illegible] dollars, but I could only draw 50 thousand dollars, and nearly 2,000 dollars interest,” continues the entry, which includes an unclear number in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In the final entry of the diary— dated May 10, 1999—the star recounts being called to a meeting with now-deceased National Police Commissioner Hok Lundy at a resort outside of Phnom Penh.

“I went to meet Hok Lundy in Kien Svay, a restaurant situated in a quiet place. He told me to go hide myself in any place for a while, because Ms. Bun Rany was very angry up to the point of attempting to take my life,” it says.

“I did not sell myself to Samdech Hun Sen. We loved each other like husband and wife,” it says, before pondering her helplessness. “I thought that I do not know whether they would spare my life or kill me because the earth is controlled by them. I have only God.”

Mr. Yentieng, the anti-corruption chief, declined to be interviewed on Sunday. However, as one of Mr. Hun Sen’s closest advisers when the L’Express story was published in October 1999, Mr. Yentieng at the time defended Ms. Rany from the accusations.

“The publication of L’Express dated Oct 7 about the death of Piseth Pilika has politically and intentionally charged Chumteav Bun Rany Hun Sen who is innocent and practices Buddhism,” Mr. Yentieng wrote in the government’s rebuttal, released the same month.

“As a victim of this twist, Chumteav Bun Rany has decided today to ask the law to find justice both in Paris and Phnom Penh,” Mr. Yentieng said.

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said on Sunday he was unconcerned that the recent campaign against Mr. Sokha’s alleged indiscretions had rekindled an interest in Piseth Pilika, saying the claims had proven baseless.

“This issue is just an allegation that the opposition party framed,” the spokesman said. “It’s just an accusation, and there’s no evidence, so it’s completely different from the Kem Sokha affair.”

Mr. Siphan maintained that the diary entries and bank slips uploaded by Piseth Pilika’s sister were fake.

“I don’t think that’s real proof,” he said. “Put it this way, I said it’s an allegation, and the NGOs have worked so hard on this issue to frame the prime minister to discredit the prime minister for political purposes.”

“They have spent so long, and they have never found proof…. If it’s true, they should get their documents and bring it to the courts,” he said.

“This is not a new one. This one has been around so long already. This allegation will not discredit the prime minister.”

Yet the claims have proven persistent. In an August 2006 interview with L’Express, disgraced and jailed former Phnom Penh police chief Heng Pov, after losing his position in a power struggle, said the story was true.

“I was put in charge of the investigation as deputy chief of the serious crimes police. As a result I discovered that she had first had a relationship with Hok Lundy who then introduced her to Hun Sen,” Mr. Pov was quoted as saying.

“But Bun Rany, the Prime Minister’s wife, found out about the affair between her husband and the star. She was accusing Hok Lundy of having played the role of matchmaker. He went to see her in order to make peace, to tell her that this was a passing fancy,” he continues.

“I learned in the course of my investigations that [Hok Lundy] had pledged to separate Piseth Pilika and Hun Sen.”

Pang Sokhoeun, who runs the pro-opposition Facebook page “Khmer Sovannaphumi”—one of the many to have recently posted articles about Piseth Pilika—said on Sunday he believed the memories could cause issues for the government.

“People now tend to focus on a national issue and social justice for national interests more than a personal one. It is also noticed that some new generations have never known this case before but now the case is heard nationwide among them,” Mr. Sokhoeun said.

(Additional reporting by Michelle Vachon and Sek Odom)

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