Killing After Unsolved Killing, Violence and Impunity Reign

Tat Marina’s injuries were horrific. After she was battered to the ground unconscious by a middle-aged woman and her two bodyguards, more than one liter of nitric acid was poured over the 16-year-old’s head, face and body in December 1999.

Her head, neck, back, chest and wrists were devastated by the flesh-eating acid. Her ears were so badly ravaged they were removed by doctors. Her lips were burned to raw, swollen blisters. Plastic tubes were set in her nostrils to keep the dead skin tissue from collapsing. Permanent blindness was only prevented by Tat Marina’s instinctive response to cover her eyes during the attack.

Police said at the time that Khoun Sophal, the wife of Council of Ministers Undersecretary of State Svay Sitha, carried out the attack in revenge for her husband’s relationship with the young karaoke video star.

An arrest warrant was issued but no one has ever been punished.

Tat Marina is in the US, where she has undergone several years of reconstructive surgery thanks to the benevolence of the Shriners’ Burns Institute in the US state of Massachusetts.

She will undergo many more years under the surgeon’s knife, but speaking from the US on Wednesday, Tat Marina had a message for her attackers and for the assailants who mowed down popular singer Touch Srey Nich on Oct 21. Shot twice in the face and once in the neck, Touch Srey Nich is currently being treated in a Bangkok hospital. Her mother was killed by the gunman.

“The shooting of elder sister Srey Nich, who I loved and respected very much, reminded me of the injustice I suffered a couple of years ago,” Tat Marina said by telephone.

“I am not angry because of their crime against me. Maybe this is my karma because I did not do good in my previous life. But I ask that [the attackers] do not laugh at us, because the ones who laugh will one day meet the same fate as we suffered,” Tat Marina said.

“One who does good acts will have good luck one day, and the one who does bad will meet with badness,” she said. “The time is not up for some people. But their time is coming.”

Tat Marina will live with her scars for life and it is still unclear if Touch Srey Nich will be left paralyzed from her attack.

Neither woman could be said to be lucky, but both survived what were premeditated and planned attacks. Many others have not.

After a week when King Norodom Sihanouk was spurred to issue a public letter denouncing and imploring Cambodia’s professional killers to give up their trade, the sons of Phnom Penh’s elite sprayed bystanders with AK-47 bullets for simply witnessing their flight from the scene of a traffic accident. The Cambodia Daily looks back at a selection of high-profile crimes and killings that remain, mostly, unsolved and unpunished to this day.

On a quiet Sunday morning in March 1997, one of Cambodia’s single greatest acts of politically motivated violence unfolded in front of the National Assembly. Around 200 people had gathered to protest corruption and CPP control over the Cambodian court system. Opposition party leader Sam Rainsy was speaking to the protesters when four grenades were lobbed into the crowd, reportedly from several directions.

At least 16 people died and 125 were injured in the attack. Witnesses later claimed that an unknown number of attackers threw the grenades and ran into the grounds of Wat Botum and that armed troops blocked pursuers.

Sam Rainsy maintained the attack was carried out by a special unit of the CPP and has long alleged that the US Federal Bureau of Investigation has suppressed a report containing information that links the CPP to the attack.

No suspects have ever been identified or arrests made. The Interior Ministry said on Wednesday that an investigation is ongoing.

Three months later, forces loyal to then second prime minister Hun Sen and first prime minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh fought bloody street battles in Phnom Penh. Hun Sen’s troops routed the royalists, and in their victory took several high-ranking Funcinpec officials prisoner.

During the July 5 to July 6 fighting, blood was spilled on both sides. But the most notorious incident of violence was the killing of Funcinpec Interior Ministry Secretary of State Ho Sok.

On July 7, Ho Sok was detained by CPP forces after leaving the Singapore ambassador’s residence. While in police custody at the Interior Ministry, he was shot several times at close range in what human rights groups alleged was an execution.

Three Interior Ministry officials were briefly suspended for failing to protect Ho Sok while in custody. Co-Minister of Interior Sar Kheng later said the identity of the killer was known, but the information was so sensitive that a name could not be released until after the government investigation.

No suspect has been identified or arrests made. The Interior Ministry said Wednesday that an investigation is ongoing.

In February 1999, Cheng Srey Pao, 19, had just moved from Kompong Cham province to Phnom Penh. She had come to the city to work as a waitress and occasional karaoke singing partner when, on the night of Feb 2, three Interior Ministry police officers entered the Mondial Karaoke club on Street 154.

The officers had been drinking heavily and, after exhausting themselves warbling along to Khmer love songs, one of the officers—later identified as San Kimsan—propositioned Cheng Srey Pao.

The young girl told the amorous officer that she was a singer, not a sex worker. The polite refusal delivered, the officer drew a handgun and allegedly shot Cheng Srey Pao through the forehead.

Four months later, the Interior Ministry granted the Phnom Penh Municipal Court permission to charge the officer—only after a personal request by Minister of Women’s Affairs Mu Sochua.

San Kimsan had long since disappeared. No one has been arrested.

Cambodia’s most famous actress and classical Khmer dancer had her back to the gunman who shot her at point-blank range. It was Tuesday, July 6, 1999. Piseth Pilika was shopping for a bicycle with her 8-year-old niece near the busy Phsar O’Russei.

Piseth Pilika was critically wounded, and her niece was left with a bullet buried in the upper portion of her back. Several days later, Piseth Pilika died on the operating table in Calmette Hospital.

The killing wrenched Cambodian society as allegations emerged that the wife of a high-ranking official ordered the hit in revenge for the actress’ affair with her husband.

The French magazine L’Express implicated Prime Minister Hun Sen and his wife, Bun Rany. A statement was issued by the prime minister’s Cabinet denying the allegations and threatening legal action against the magazine, which, it turned out, had a relative of opposition leader Sam Rainsy on its staff. The accusations have been branded an opposition ploy to blacken the name of Hun Sen and Bun Rany.

Almost 20 relatives of the slain actress were given asylum in France, where they remain today and continue to allege that Piseth Pilika had an affair with the prime minister.

Though the crime amounted to one of the most high-profile killings in Cambodia’s recent history, no suspects have ever been identified or arrested.

The Interior Ministry said Wednesday that an investigation is ongoing.

On the morning of Dec 5, 1999 Tat Marina was eating rice soup with her 3-year-old niece near Phsar Olympic when she was yanked by the hair and thrown to the ground by two men and an older woman. She was kicked and kneed in the chest until she passed out and was then doused with more than a liter of nitric acid.

Her hair started to curl and became shorter and shorter as it melted. Her skin turned white and began to melt along with her cotton and synthetic nylon clothes.

Weeks later, two handprints—etched by the acid on Tat Marina hands—stood out against the dull rust of a corrugated iron gate. The 10-digit, two-palm impression was left when Tat Marina pushed the gate open in a desperate search for water to wash off the acid.

Tat Marina has been in the US since early 2000 undergoing surgery to rebuild her face.

An arrest warrant was issued for Khoun Sophal, the wife of Svay Sitha, but no arrests have ever been made. A senior police official said Wednesday that the arrest warrant against Khoun Sophal may have been withdrawn. He would give no further details.

Since the beginning of this year, assassin-style attacks in Phnom Penh have taken on a frightening regularity and thoroughly convinced ordinary citizens of the ease with which killers operate and escape unhindered.

In February, 47-year-old Buddhist monk Sam Bunthoeun was gunned down inside Wat Langka. President of the Buddhist Meditation Center in Odong, Sam Bunthoeun was shot twice in the chest by two men on a motorcycle. The Sam Rainsy Party claimed he was in support of monks voting in the July 27 election.

No suspects have been named and no arrests made in the case.

Two weeks later, Om Radsady, a senior adviser to Funcinpec President Prince Norodom Ranariddh, was gunned down as he left a busy restaurant near Independence Monument.Two members of the elite RCAF 911 Paratrooper Commando unit were charged with the killing, and on Monday they were convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison. They said they killed Om Radsady for his telephone, which they later threw in the Tonle Bassac.However, inconsistencies in their statements at their trial have left some with the impression the two did not kill the royalist official just for his telephone. Prince Ranariddh and other senior royalists had earlier branded the attack a political assassination.

In April, Municipal Court Judge Sok Sethamony was shot dead by two gunmen as he prepared to steer his vehicle through a busy intersection on Sihanouk Boulevard. A gunman fired four bullets through the passenger-side window, hitting the judge four times in the torso and hand.

Less than a week later, a 29-year-old Chinese woman was shot dead by gunmen as she drove in her vehicle on a side street off Mao Tse-tung Boulevard. Two men on a motorcycle pulled in front of her vehicle and shot her five times through the vehicle’s side window.

On the morning of Oct 18, gunmen shot dead pro-Funcinpec radio editor and reporter Chuor Chetharith outside his offices in Chamkar Mon district. Two men on a motorcycle carried out the attack. Police have no suspects.

Three days later, on Oct 21, gunmen struck again, shooting three bullets into the face and neck of singer Touch Srey Nich. Her mother was fatally shot as she tried to shield her daughter. Touch Srey Nich is recovering in a Bangkok hospital.

Witnesses saw one gunman and three accomplices traveling on two motorcycles. Police have made no arrests.

Deputy Municipal Police Chief Heng Pov declined on Wednesday to comment on the slew of recent shootings and deferred questions to the Interior Ministry.

The King, however, was not so reticent.

“Of this moment, our country has become a ‘jungle’ (although deforested) populated more and more by ‘wild unknown’ assassins, ‘unfindable’ and naturally, ‘unpunished,’” King Sihanouk wrote in an open letter posted on his Web site.

The King’s letter attacked the country’s assassins, their overlords and the police.

“The compatriots that, in the year 1990 to 2000, you have killed savagely, have not done wrong by belonging to an ‘opposing’ political party or of being liked (it concerns itself of the ladies) by such or such ‘Power,’” the King wrote.

He called on the assassins to change professions, pity their Khmer compatriots and fear ending up in hell.

Overlords of the assassins, the King said, were “Khmers who degrade the Khmer race and your own Fatherland.”

Though they may be placed high in the “national elite” and vaunted by family and supporters, those of you who stand behind assassins must “dare to examine your conscience,” the King wrote.

The police are also engaged in a charade of trying to catch culprits by deploying armed checkpoints throughout the city that ostensibly sow fear in law-abiding citizens, he added.

“I don’t have the ability to give you any order. But I can at least ask you to cease the practice of ‘hypocrisy,’” the King wrote.

Interior Ministry Spokesman Khieu Sopheak said Wednesday that investigations into the 1997 grenade attack are still ongoing and that the government has already cooperated with the FBI on the investigation. The killing of Ho Sok is also open; so too is the killing of Piseth Pilika, the killing of radio journalist Chuor Chetharith and the shooting of Touch Srey Nich.

The killers of Chuor Chetharith were professional killers, but the motive for the attack is still not known, said Khieu Sopheak.

“I can say that the police, even if they haven’t conducted the most perfect duty, but what we have done so far is ensure the social security and the political stability of the nation,” Khieu Sopheak said.

“We are improving our weak points day by day. We lack expertise and modern equipment, but we have our commitment,” he added.

Khieu Sopheak defended the police force against claims that political influence and the powerful were the greatest single barriers to honest and thorough law enforcement investigations.

“People can say that, but the police still have their duty to do their job,” he said.

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