Professional Killings On the Rise in Cambodia

Violent death is no stranger in Cambodia, but the growing professionalism exhibited in the killings of several prominent Cambodians indicates that an increasing number of deadly hit men are for hire in Phnom Penh, police officials say.

Their modus operandi is simple: Two men, one pistol, a motorcycle and safety helmets to hide their identities.

Approaching their target in busy city locations, the passenger carries out the execution in broad daylight while the getaway driver’s task is to whisk both from the scene of the crime.

The hired killers are neither pursued nor usually caught.

It’s daringly simple and has worked without fail in several of Cambodia’s most high-profile killings, the most recent being the Wednesday shooting of Phnom Penh Municipal Court Judge Sok Sethamony.

“Shooting in the forest is normal, but not in front of many people on a street where everyone can see and hear,” a provincial police chief said on condition of anonymity Wednesday.

Noting the surge in professional kills in recent years, the police chief said that contract killings cost less than $1,000 for an important personality, and probably far less if the target is not a public figure.

“There are a lot of specialists to kill in Phnom Penh now…. Assassins are easy to find,” the police chief said.

The police chief noted that such events seem to be tolerated in Phnom Penh, unlike other prov­inces and municipalities where if similar incidents occur, someone is always held accountable.

Cambodia’s most famous classical dancer and cinema starlet, Piseth Pilika, was gunned down in broad daylight in 1999 at a busy bicycle shop near O’Russei market.

The gunman coolly approached the star, firing several bullets into her body. One bullet struck the back of Piseth Pilika’s 8-year-old niece.

His job done, the hit man escaped on a motorcycle driven by an accomplice. Despite massive public outrage over the star’s killing, no suspects were ever identified or anyone ever arrested.

The conspiracy involved in Piseth Pilika’s death is still a burning issue for her family and many Cambodians.

More recently, three public figures have been gunned down in frighteningly similar circumstances.

In February, the president of the Buddhist Meditation Center of Odong Sam Bunthoeun, 47, was shot twice in the chest inside the Wat Langka complex. The monk died two days later at the hospital.

Several witnesses saw the shooting: two men, one motorcycle, one pistol. No one has yet been arrested.

Two weeks later Om Radsady, a senior adviser to Funcinpec President Prince Norodom Ranariddh, was shot and killed at lunch time outside a packed restaurant in what many believe was a political assassination.

Again, two men on a motorcycle in broad daylight carried out the killing.

Two members of the elite RCAF 911 Para-Commando unit were later charged with the killing, which government officials have characterized as a mobile telephone robbery. Royalist party members have scoffed at this claim.

The hit on Sok Sethamony stunned many in Phnom Penh, and left the courts fearful.

Sok Sethamony was killed as he prepared to steer his vehicle through a busy intersection on Sihanouk Boulevard.

Possibly hundreds of people saw the motorbike pull up beside the judge’s Mitsubishi Pajero.

Steadied by the driver, the passenger raised himself up on the motorcycle’s foot pegs, aimed, and fired five bullets through the passenger window, hitting the judge in the torso and hand, according to witnesses.

The killers swiftly departed and by Thursday have left police without a motive or suspects.

“If they were not professional, why would they do at 7:30 in the morning?” said an Interior Ministry official who also requested anonymity.

“Assassinations are organized by the group. [Members] have special team training,” the official said.

“They wanted to show their specialization. In the middle of the city they can do. It shows that everyone can be a target,” he said, adding that such attacks were particularly symbolic in the build-up to the election.

Interior Ministry Spokesman Khieu Sopheak on Thursday discounted speculation that the killers were trained hit men.

Police are busy tracking down the shooters, he said, but added, “In Cambodia we don’t have professional killers.”

Still, at least one country’s police force believes that Cambodia is exporting the expertise of its hit men.

In November, Taipei city councilor Chen Chin-Chi was shot dead outside a busy restaurant in Taipei by a hit man Taiwanese police identified as “Ah Tai”.

Ah Tai was a member of the Taiyang (Sun) gang and “had traveled to Cambodia three times to receive training as an assassin,” Taiwanese police officers said, according to a report in the China Post newspaper in December.

Other Interior Ministry officers, speaking on condition of anonymity, also say Cambodia did have specially trained units of security forces and spies trained in “special” techniques.

Such training was introduced during the 1980s by Vietnamese experts, and many police and military intelligence officers were trained in Hanoi, the officials maintain.

While the original units no longer exist, their methods and techniques may have filtered beyond the confines of government security operatives, leaving well-trained individuals who can freelance their skills.

Deputy Municipal Police Chief Heng Pov said the killers may not have been professionals, but they were probably robbers who are skilled in dealing out death.

“The killers are skilled. A common person dares not do this. They are very brave and cruel; they shot until the last bullet,” Heng Pov said of the men who killed Sok Sethamony.

“It costs about $2,000 or less for one life,” he said. “There are a lot of robbers to be hired.”

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