takhmau district, Kandal province – Behind a desolate pagoda, patches of charred bone and wood mark the remains of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s last line of defense.
Members of his 2,000-strong special bodyguard unit are cremated here in brief ceremonies rarely attended by more than a handful of mourners.
The corpses usually arrive by night and are burned the next morning. Many come still soaked in their own blood, monks said.
“No villagers come here. Only the bodyguards,” said 19-year-old Sin Kosal, a monk at Wat Krabao. “Most of them have been shot,” he said.
The most recent cremations came in a pair, after a double shooting at Hun Sen’s residence in Phnom Penh. The victims’ names were not made public until Monday, when Huy Piseth, commander of the bodyguard unit, identified them as Men Vannak, 34, and Yuk Norin, 28.
Both men died from gunshot wounds inside Hun Sen’s compound on Feb 7. Witnesses said they heard arguing that night, then gunfire. Next, an ambulance was seen taking the bodies away and more guards were scrubbing blood from the compound’s entrance, they said.
Huy Piseth said the shooting was a tragic accident, when one guard accidentally fired on another with an AK-47. He then turned the gun on himself and took his own life, Huy Piseth said.
“He was careless,” the commander said Monday, without identifying which man was the shooter. “Then he felt so frightened and afraid that he killed himself.”
The bloodshed drew renewed attention to Hun Sen’s special bodyguard unit, a brotherhood of secrecy and trust that probably surpasses any personal security apparatus assembled in recent Cambodian history.
Sources say the unit is organized in concentric circles: The smallest circle rarely leaves Hun Sen’s side, and answers only to the prime minister.
And the closer one is to the prime minister, the farther one is from the grasp of the traditional institutions that govern society.
Neither national nor military police made any investigation into the two bodyguards’ deaths earlier this month, saying they could not interfere.
“They were dead but police were not allowed to report,” said Phorn Pen, chief of Daun Penh district police, at the time.
National Military Police Commander Sao Sokha said Monday he still knows nothing about the shooting and that his forces will not investigate.
“Until now, I have not yet gotten information on that,” Sao Sokha said.
According to Huy Piseth, there is no need to investigate. Their deaths were an accident, he said, and now the families of Men Vannak and Yuk Norin are being cared for. The prime minister gave them each $1,250 for their loyal service, and they will receive a military pension, he said.
“Everything is finished,” he added.
As in the deaths of other bodyguards of the premier, it was finished with an almost anonymous cremation, witnesses said.
Villagers around the pagoda said they heard cars arrive at the pagoda around midnight on the night of the killings. Early the next morning a few people arrived—some in Toyota Land Cruisers, others on motorbikes—as the two bodies burned in an open pyre.
Only a few days before, the cremation of another young bodyguard had drawn more than a hundred mourners.
Though the cause of death is almost always a mystery, the dead man’s rank and importance can be determined by the crowd that attend the ceremony at the pagoda, said one villager.
For the cremation of a high-ranking bodyguard, the unit’s deputy commander Hing Bunheang might offer a donation, and sometimes RCAF Deputy Commander-in-Chief Kun Kim attends.
Their special attendance is heralded by bodyguards deployed along the dirt road to the pagoda, the villager said.
“When it is a high-ranking man, we can hear a prayer over the loudspeakers,” the villager said. “If he is low-ranking, it is quiet. They burn quietly.”