No Suspects Yet on Anniversary of Star’s Slaying

Gunmen who snuffed out the life of Cambodia’s most famous film actress and star of the Royal Cambodian Ballet, Piseth Pilika,  killed more than a talented woman —they erased a re­nowned cultural icon.

Piseth Pilika, 34, was shot three years ago on Saturday and died a week later from three bullets fired into her at point-blank range by who many believe were hired assassins.

Her 7-year-old niece was also shot in the daylight attack on a busy street corner. Three years later, the bullet remains lodged near the young girl’s spine and cannot be removed until she is an adult, doctors say.

The story of Piseth Pilika’s execution-style death stunned the country and gripped the hearts of countless Cambodians with its allegations of an illicit love affair, a powerful government official and his scorned, jealous wife who allegedly hired the killers.

But as the third anniversary approaches, no suspects have been identified, despite the continuing work of a senior police task force devoted to the investigation.

Human rights workers and relatives say the killing of Piseth Pilika and the failure to identify suspects is yet another page in a long catalog of Cambodian crime and impunity.

“Our officials are still investiga­ting this case,” said Teng Savong, dep­uty director general of the Cambodian National Police.

Teng Savong, who heads the task force investigating the killing, said witnesses saw the gunmen, but police are stumped as to their identities.

“The investigation is not finished. The case is not closed. It could take 10 years,” he said.

Teng Savong also heads the often-criticized task force investigating the 1997 grenade attack on a Sam Rainsy Party rally that killed at least 16 people and injured more than 125 people. No suspects have ever been arrested for that attack.

Center for Social Development President Chea Vannath said the shooting of Piseth Pilika was just one of several high profile killings without suspects.

“It was one of a kind, but not the only murder case. It made a lot of publicity and coverage because the allegations involved high-ranking people,” Chea Vannath said.

Newspaper sales soared in the weeks after the killing, as a story of celebrity, power, lust and death unfolded.

The office of Prime Minister Hun Sen threatened to sue the French magazine L’Express for an article that implicated the premier in the affair and alleged his wife Bun Rany was behind the slaying.

Hun Sen and his family were outraged by the accusations. The prime minister’s office branded the article a character assassination inspired by opposition party leader Sam Rainsy, whose sister-in-law worked for L’Express.

But the inability to make an arrest for the killing means suspicion still surrounds the case.

Prosecutions in such high profile crimes depend more on political will than police competence, and while the memory of Piseth Pilika fades, few Cambodians will forget her killing, Chea Vannath said.

“People go to jail for stealing a motorcycle or bicycle. Yet a teacher of fine arts…a movie star was killed and no one was brought to justice,” she said.

Thun Saray, director of human rights group Adhoc, said until the long-awaited promise of judicial reform takes place, impunity will remain a fixture in Cambodian society.

Piseth Pilika was orphaned during the Khmer Rouge regime. In 1980, she returned to Phnom Penh and began nine years of study to become a diva of Khmer traditional dancing.

She broke into acting, taking roles in some 60 films before returning to teach classical Khmer dance at the Royal University of Fine Arts in 1990. With the decline of the Cambodia film industry, she became in the mid-1990s a star of the burgeoning karaoke video industry.

More than 10,000 mourners attended her funeral, described by many as a national outpouring of emotion.

“She was the best among the dancers,” said Proeung Chhieng, dean of the faculty of choreographic arts at the Royal University of Fine Arts. “Now we continue with our art and culture but it is not the high quality. She was the best.”

In Paris, relatives of the slain star will light incense sticks and make offerings to Buddhist monks in her memory.

“Each anniversary, I still remember the killing that took place in front of my eyes,” said Ouk Divina, Piseth Pilika’s sister who fled to France after the shooting.

But the death is more than a memory for Ouk Divina, who still takes her daughter each month to a Paris hospital where doctors track the bullet lodged near her spine.

“I feel hopeless the government has not arrested the offenders,” she said by telephone.

“Our country has no court system, no security. The offenders who killed my sister are supported by the big man. Cambodian courts have no capacity to arrest the big man.”

Separated from her relatives in a foreign land, Ouk Divina hopes she can one day return to Cambodia.

“I miss my birth place, but we cannot come back. I am afraid I will be killed like my sister.”

(Additional reporting Phann Ana and Saing Soenthrith)

 

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