A man doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire at a Buddhist shrine about 100 meters from Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Phnom Penh residence at midday Wednesday.
The man, who police said came from Prey Veng province, died in Calmette Hospital Wednesday afternoon after suffering severe burns, hospital staff said. Ros Sovanna, Prey Veng provincial police chief, was able to identify the man only as Roeun, and said he was 65 years old.
It was unclear whether the self-immolation was intended as a form of protest, and witnesses, police and hospital staff said they were uncertain what motivated the act.
However, at least one witness said that uniformed police were given a document belonging to the man, and that it and other items were removed from the scene.
Before setting himself alight, the man knelt in prayer and offered incense at the shrine that has been the site of numerous gatherings by rural Cambodians demonstrating against land grabbing.
Witnesses in the park said that after the man was taken to the hospital, uniformed officials removed documents and photographs the man appeared to be carrying in a plastic bag which was found next to the shrine.
Tal Harhas, an Israeli national, witnessed the incident and said that after the man’s body was taken away, he believed someone took the bag and documents and showed them to police who rushed to the scene.
“I’m pretty sure I saw a guy getting a note,” Harhas said. “He showed it around.”
Pro-CPP newspaper Chakraval Daily reported in a Wednesday evening edition that the man was a member of Funcinpec who was disgruntled by a power struggle within the party.
“Pitiful for the [royalist President] Prince [Norodom Ranariddh], angry party official doused himself with gasoline and burned himself,” the newspaper’s headline read, just hours after the incident.
Funcinpec officials quickly denied the allegation.
“If he was not happy with Funcinpec, why didn’t he come to burn himself in front of [Funcinpec] headquarters?” said Noranarith Anandayath, Prince Ranariddh’s Cabinet chief, by telephone Wednesday evening.
A crowd of about 100 gathered as the man burned, and one bystander brought pieces of cloth and an empty cement sack to cushion his head as he convulsed on the ground.
“I felt so pitiful for him,” said Pen Chan Veasna, 44.
“I brought a bucket of water to pour on his body to make him cool down,” he said.
A pair of cheap plastic sandals remained in front of the shrine after the man was taken to hospital.
Several villagers from Siem Reap province who had gathered in the park opposite the premier’s house to protest against land grabbing witnessed the suicide.
Protester Kean Tha, 60, said she did not know the man and added that he was not involved in their protest. However, following the incident, police approached Kean Tha and confiscated her documents that detailed the loss of her property. She was subsequently taken for questioning.
Police said Wednesday afternoon that she had been released, although her whereabouts could not be independently confirmed.
At Calmette Hospital before the man died, a member of staff who asked not to be identified said the hospital was able to administer medical treatment to relieve the man’s suffering.
By dusk on Wednesday, another group of about 100 villagers from Kompong Cham province had gathered by the shrine and site of the self-immolation. The victim was not a member of their group, they said.
Police in Prey Veng are trying to locate the man’s family and determine a motive for the incident, Ros Sovanna said.
(Reporting by Lee Berthiaume, Phann Ana, Prak Chan Thul, Saing Soenthrith, Kuch Naren and William Shaw.)