On Feb 6, 47-year-old Sam Bunthoeun, the president of the country’s Buddhist Meditation Center of Odong, was gunned down in front of a house in the Wat Langka complex by two men on a motorcycle.
One of the men shot Sam Bunthoeun twice in the chest with a pistol, and, although he wasn’t killed immediately, he died from the gunshot wounds two days later at Calmette Hospital.
Sam Bunthoeun was considered a very popular monk, well liked by lay people and a devout follower of the Buddhist religion. Monks and lay people at Wat Langka agree that Sam Bunthoeun was not involved in politics and say that he had no enemies—which makes the death of one of the country’s leading Buddhist figures all the more perplexing.
Monks who had lived with Sam Bunthoeun for two years could not give a reason for the shooting. The authorities investigating the killing could not ascribe any motives to the shooting and have yet to identify or arrest any suspects.
But some observers have started wondering whether the authorities are intentionally holding back with this investigation, and if the government is preventing police from making the proper arrests.
“One [municipal] police major told me that they know who killed Sam Bunthoeun and could arrest [the suspects] in three hours, but the government will not allow them,” Chhay Chorith, the head monk at Wat Langka, said on Wednesday. Chhay Chorith refused to name the police official who told him this.
The human rights group Adhoc, which conducted a preliminary investigation into the killing, reported that five witnesses who saw the shooting on Feb 6 gave statements and detailed descriptions of the assailants to the police, but the police until now have not acted on the information.
Police officials strongly maintain they are fully investigating the killing of Sam Bunthoeun, saying that the Ministry of Interior, municipal police and Kandal province police—the province where Sam Bunthoeun founded and operated a Buddhist meditation school—are all looking into the killing.
“Our police are working hard to investigate the case, and we are cooperating with the Ministry of Interior,” said Heng Pov, deputy police chief of Phnom Penh. “We are working together to find out who the hitmen are, but until now we can’t name the suspects.”
The Ministry of Interior also “rejected” the accusation that it was preventing police from arresting any suspects in the killing. “The authorities want very much to arrest suspects—that is our commitment because we need to find justice in this killing,” said General Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior.
The Ministry of Cults and Religion, however, has also started to inquire about the killing. Soon after the shooting, Minister of Cults and Religion Chea Savoeun sent a letter of complaint to the Ministry of Interior about the investigation, said Hav Kimhour, penal police chief for the Ministry of Interior.
Chea Savoeun also said that he was asked to remain silent about the killing.
He said he was asked to keep quiet by Tep Vong, the supreme patriarch of the majority Mohanikaya Buddhist sect.
“Tep Vong asked me not to announce by television or radio the killing of Sam Bunthoeun,” Chea Savoeun said. “I still wonder why I could not release a statement.”
Monks at Wat Langka also said they were prevented from issuing any sort of statement about the killing, but declined to say who gave the order.
“We could not release any statement about the killing,” said In Sokmony, a monk who lives at Wat Langka.
Tep Vong said on Thursday that he ordered that no statement be released about the killing.
“We did not condemn or react to the killing because that is the Buddhist way,” said Tep Vong, whose official title is the First Patriarch of the Order of Majority. He too had questions surrounding the killing.
“Why did they kill the monk in the pagoda?” he asked.
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