Opposition leader Sam Rainsy has tried for months to erect a memorial to the victims of the 1997 grenade attack that killed at least 16 people and injured scores of others.
Five times within the past year, the Sam Rainsy Party erected stupas on the spot where the blast occurred. Five times they were removed, with municipal authorities saying the party had not asked permission to build a monument and the site was inappropriate. On Saturday, Sam Rainsy succeeded.
“To the heroic demonstrators who lost their lives on 30 March 1997, for the cause of justice and democracy,” reads a marble plaque on the side of the memorial. “The tragedy occurred 60 meters from this monument, on the sidewalk of the park across from the National Assembly.”
Hundreds knelt and prayed Saturday morning in the park across from the National Assembly as Sam Rainsy dedicated the permanent memorial to the victims of the March 30, 1997, grenade explosion.
It was nearly the same time and place, with some of the same people, but the events could hardly have been more dissimilar.
On the day of the attack, the dead and dying lay on a blood-drenched sidewalk after someone hurled grenades into what had been a peaceful demonstration for court reform.
In June, US Ambassador Kent Wiedemann brokered a meeting between Sam Rainsy and Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara, and the two reached an agreement on the memorial.
The 3.5-meter stupa dedicated Saturday is substantially larger than its predecessors. The handsome new stupa incorporates colors and design elements in harmony with the newly refurbished National Assembly.
Its location was shifted to the west to alleviate possible traffic problems. Earlier versions on the blast site next to Sothearos Boulevard sometimes drew crowds of mototaxi drivers, snarling traffic.
Saturday’s ceremony drew hundreds of onlookers, several dozen monks, and many blast victims and their families. Notably absent, however, were some invited diplomats.
Wiedemann and British Ambassador George Edgar attended, as did an envoy from the Thai embassy. Sam Rainsy said he did not know why turnout was so low.
Wiedemann said he believed it was important to be there. “This is a monument to those who stood up for democracy, as many here do,” he said. “These people were murdered…This stupa, this event, these people here should be honored, so I’m here to do that.”
Earlier, victims of the attack and those who lost relatives that day told Wiedemann that they did not regret their sacrifices, and that they were proud they had stood up for justice.
“I ask the international community and the United Nations to help us fight for democracy,” one older woman told him. “We are ready to die for democracy.”
Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara, who had initially planned to attend, said Sunday he had to cancel his plans because he had become unexpectedly busy.
(Additional reporting by Kay Kimsong)