samrong thom commune, Kien Svay district, Kandal Province—The last time Chea Sokhom’s grandparents saw him in the flesh, he was walking toward Phnom Penh carrying an empty backpack.
He told them he was going to collect money he was owed in the capital, and they asked him to return the same day, which was Wednesday, his grandparents said on Saturday.
The next time they saw their grandson it was on television, after he took over Siem Reap International School at gunpoint on Thursday morning.
Chea Sokhom, 23, led the hostage-taking with three unarmed accomplices, who, according to their families, were in Siem Reap town for the first time.
Like the relatives and neighbors of his accomplices, Chea Sokhom’s grandparents, Sok Chea and Kov Neang, said they are baffled about what could have motivated the gang.
During the 21-year-old’s time in Kien Svay’s Prek Takeo village, “he was very polite. He never even killed a chicken,” said his grandfather Sok Chea.
“I don’t know about his background outside the house,” he added.
The four young men are drug users, Prek Takeo village Chief Nhean Vin said Saturday, adding that there is an element of violence among young men in the village.
But with one exception—Vann Touch Sopheak—the four have never been jailed or imprisoned, parents and Nhean Vin said.
The three “never committed any crime in the village,” Nhean Vin said. “I don’t know why they did it.”
Maing Pich, Kien Svay district police chief, said Sunday by telephone that the four suspects were gang members and that two of them had been detained in the past for theft and violence.
The parents of Chea Sokhom’s accomplices said he approached their sons in the days prior to the hostage-taking, inviting them to go with him to find work in Siem Reap and Sihanoukville.
On June 13, Chea Sokhom approached Vann Touch Sopheak, 18, inviting him to come to Siem Reap to work supplying rice to a South Korean man, his parents recalled.
“I said, for a good job, I’d love him to go,” his mother Yin Narong said.
At about 10:30 am on Wednesday, less than 24 hours before they took around 30 school children and teachers hostage, the four left for Siem Reap in a hired Toyota Camry, she said.
“I wonder how they got there very fast and started the crime very soon,” Vann Touch Sopheak’s father Vann Thon said, adding that he did not believe his son would have wanted to take part.
“He was cheated by his friends,” Yin Narong said.
But the hostage-taking was not Vann Touch Sopheak’s first involvement in crime.
In 2002, he attacked and robbed a bullock-cart driver, along with five friends, and was jailed for one-and-a-half months, Yin Narong said.
Released from prison, he dropped out of school and joined a private security firm, Protek Cambodia Security Co Ltd, and worked at the Hong Kong Center in Phnom Penh and at a garment factory in Tuol Kok district until 2004, when his employment ended because he was not coming to work on time, Yin Narong said.
Ti Sokha’s mother, Chea Sophan, described her son as a quiet 18-year-old who liked to play football and dance at village ceremonies when he wasn’t working on the farm.
“He went to Siem Reap quietly, without telling me,” with his former classmate Chea Sokhom, she said.
“I was very shocked” by the hostage-taking, she said.
“We can’t think, and we still don’t believe that they did this,” she added.
In the days prior to the hostage-taking, Chea Sokhom approached Mann Thol, identified by Siem Reap police as Sim Tha, 18, and told him he could help him find work as a waiter in Sihanoukville, not Siem Reap, Mann Thol’s mother Yi Leng said.
“I feel so sad that that Chea Sokhom brought my son to have problems,” Yi Leng said. “Chea Sokhom cheated my son.”
Police have not yet interviewed any of the suspects’ relatives.
Lao Mong Hay of the Center for Social Development said he was not entirely sure what prompted the hostage-taking, but said it was likely caused by anger about the widening gap between the rich and the poor.
Cambodia “is a socially unstable society,” he said. “They wanted money out of the rich, and the International School was known as somewhere where the rich sent their children.”
Perhaps only the men themselves can reveal exactly why they took the school over, village Chief Nhean Vin said.
“I never thought they could commit this crime,” he said. “It’s beyond my thinking.”
(Additional reporting by Pin Sisovann)