Undercover and uniformed police officers are busy scouring Phnom Penh’s newspaper stands in an operation to censor a new booklet on the life and violent death of Cambodia’s most famous actress and classical dancer, Piseth Pilika.
Scores of copies of the color booklet have been confiscated, leaving several book vendors in the city angry at authorities for removing one of their fastest-selling publications ever.
But who exactly ordered the book banned is still a mystery.
Ministry of Information officials said on Tuesday the seizure was not sanctioned by the ministry and the censorship and removal of a publication from bookstands requires a court order.
Piseth Pilika was shot three times in the back on a busy street corner in Phnom Penh on July 6, 1999, and died after losing a weeklong battle to survive the assassins’ bullets.
“Piseth Pilika: A True and Horrible Story,” was delivered to dozens of bookstalls around the city over the weekend with the assistance of opposition party members, vendors said.
The 12-page booklet contains extracts from the slain star’s alleged personal diaries, in which she details an illicit love affair with a high-ranking official and threats against her life by the official’s jealous wife.
One vendor near the Independence Monument said she sold 30 copies of the 1,000 riel booklet on Sunday—three times more than her sales of the most popular Khmer-language magazines.
“They confiscated 25 books and told me not to sell it anymore,” said the vendor, adding that many people are still trying to buy the booklet.
Several other vendors at Wat Phnom and Wat Lanka also reported police officers removing their stocks and ordering them not to sell any more.
“They confiscated them on Monday and came back this morning to check again,” said Kunthea, a vendor in Phnom Penh.
But the ban also created a demand for the book—which came highly recommended by several vendors who had read it.
“In a democracy they create books and we have the right to read them,” said one man after purchasing a copy from a vendor at Wat Lanka who had hidden it from police.
Information Ministry Secretary of State Khieu Kanharith said he had nothing to do with the ban.
“I don’t have the book…. I don’t know who made the [ban] order,” Khieu Kanharith said.
Authors are normally required to discuss new publications with the ministry, which reviews their works for libel, misinformation or threats to national security.
If a book is to be banned or confiscated, a court order is required, Khieu Kanharith said.
The order to confiscate the Piseth Pilika booklet could only have been made on the authority of a high-ranking official, he added.
A senior Interior Ministry official said the confiscation was ordered because the book publisher did not have a license from the Ministry of Education and an official there requested that the Municipal Police remove the books.
“So we got about 100 books,” the Interior official said.
However, Education Ministry Secretary of State Pok Than said his ministry only has jurisdiction to issue licenses for school textbooks.
“The ministry does not regulate books…only textbooks,” Pok Than said.
A second Education Ministry official named by the Interior Ministry as ordering the confiscation said he knew nothing about it.
Soon after the assassination of Piseth Pilika, Prime Minister Hun Sen and his wife, Bun Rany, threatened to sue the French magazine L’Express over an article that implicated them in the affair.
One page of the booklet shows a picture of the star’s funeral, with photos of Piseth Pilika, Hun Sen and Bun Rany.
Hun Sen’s Cabinet officials have publicly branded the article a character assassination encouraged by Cambodia’s opposition leader Sam Rainsy, whose sister-in-law worked for the magazine.
No suspects have ever been identified in the killing of Piseth Pilika, whose funeral attracted 10,000 mourners—one of the largest-attended ceremonies in recent Cambodian history.
Fearing further reprisals after the killing, Piseth Pilika’s sister, her 7-year-old niece, who was also shot in the attack, and eight other relatives fled Cambodia and were granted asylum in France.
They recently launched a Web site in France containing information on the killing of Piseth Pilika and have accused the Cambodian government of a massive cover-up because of the powerful people allegedly involved in the hit.
Khieu Kanharith said the timing of the new Piseth Pilika booklet was not a coincidence as Cambodia is moving toward general elections.
“Some people want to politicize before the election,” he said.