Scenes of unfettered grief engulfed mourners in the corridors of the Preah Sihanouk Hospital on Tuesday as doctors fought to save the life of popular singer Touch Srey Nich, 24, who was shot twice in the face and once in the neck by assailants in a daytime attack that left her mother dead.
In scenes reminiscent of the 1999 slaying of beloved classical Khmer dancer and movie starlet Piseth Pilika, small groups of family members, friends and entertainment-industry colleagues huddled in tearful vigil outside the hospital’s intensive care unit.
Armed guards shouldering AK-47 rifles and carrying handguns stood guard as more than half a dozen emergency room medical staff battled with the injuries inflicted by a gunman who shot the star at close range at 11:15 am as she left a flower shop near the Hotel Inter-Continental.
Touch Srey Nich’s mother, Kim Sinoun, 59, died around noon at Calmette Hospital from a single gunshot wound to the back.
Husband of a slain wife and father to a critically injured daughter, Seang Touch, 59, had to be physically restrained by relatives in the hallways of Preah Sihanouk Hospital as his shock gave way to hysterical grief.
The singer’s brother, Touch Neth, 20, was carried away by relatives and medical staff as news reached the hospital that his mother had died. He was still wearing a shirt that had soaked up blood from his mother’s and sister’s wounds as he helped carry them to the hospital.
According to witnesses, the singer was gunned down as she left a flower shop on Monireth Boulevard. Touch Srey Nich’s mother and younger brother were waiting outside in a vehicle. When the gunman began firing, the singer’s mother jumped from the vehicle and ran toward her daughter. Firing his last round into the star’s head as she slumped to the ground, the hit man raised his weapon and shot her mother once, witnesses said.
Municipal Deputy Police Chief Heng Pov said four men, on two motorcycles, were involved in the attack. Witnesses said the shooter was in his late 20s and wore civilian clothes and a baseball hat.
Funcinpec officials said the star, who is widely known by the name Touch Sunnich, had identified herself with the royalist party, singing songs that featured in the Funcinpec general election campaign and in the film “Raj Borei,” the directorial debut of Funcinpec President Prince Norodom Ranariddh.
In 1999, the young singer was the first to record the Ministry of Women’s Affairs song “Neary Rattanak” (“Women are Precious Gems”), Funcinpec Minister of Women’s Affairs Mu Sochua said in a statement.
She also pointed out that Tuesday’s shooting follows the slaying of pro-Funcinpec radio reporter Chuor Chetharith on Saturday morning.
“Two more women have been shot in broad daylight in a situation where there can be no question of provocation. This is cold-blooded murder…. We are confronted with a systematic campaign of intimidation,” Mu Sochua wrote.
The Alliance of Democrats, which is composed of the Sam Rainsy Party and Funcinpec, issued a statement noting that the motive for the latest attack was unclear, but that the singer had recorded songs for the pro-Funcinpec Ta Prohm radio station that specifically were played during the election campaign.
The singer had also recorded a collection of songs in support of the Khmer Krom community in Vietnam’s south. The songs deal with such themes as corruption, border issues and the suffering of the Khmer Krom in Vietnam, the Alliance wrote in its statement.
“More than ever, Cambodia needs a new leadership,” the Alliance stated, adding that it “calls upon the caretaker prime minister to step down gracefully, and make way for a peaceful formation of a new leadership.”
Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said the attacks point to a systematic campaign of terror ultimately designed to discredit Prime Minister Hun Sen.
“It seems that there is a larger scheme to show that Hun Sen is incompetent to rule the country…. If we don’t have any proof to say that it is a personal conflict, it must be a scheme,” Khieu Kanharith said.
“This is to justify why he must step down…. Only in a few days there are shootings and many armed robberies,” he said.
Khieu Kanharith said it was too early to conclude the possible identities of those behind such a plot. However, he said, “many politicians say there will not be big demonstrations. But there is big chaos” after the election.
Om Yentieng, an adviser to Hun Sen, told reporters at the hospital that the government had ordered Phnom Penh Governor Kep Chuktema to arrange for the medical evacuation of the singer to a hospital in Thailand. The government would foot the hefty medical bill, he told reporters.
Mu Sochua said a plane was to arrive from Bangkok at 11:30 pm Tuesday to airlift Touch Srey Nich.
However, a doctor at Preah Sihanouk Hospital said it was dangerous to move her because of her extensive injuries. If Touch Srey Nich survives, she will probably be paralyzed from the neck down, as one of the three bullets was fired into her neck, said the doctor, who requested anonymity.
Friends, relatives and fans took part in a candle-lit vigil Tuesday at Preah Sihanouk Hospital.