DJ Says He’s No Rebel
Phnom Penh’s DJ Sope began the night spinning records and crooning karaoke.
He ended it stripped to his Haynes briefs, ducking machine-gun fire and begging for mercy after a bullet ripped into his thigh and a rifle butt split open his head.
As many as eight men were killed in the early morning skirmishes of November 24, and if it hadn’t been for his celebrity, Sope claims, he would have been one of the dead.
More than two weeks after a rag-tag group of about 50 armed men launched a midnight assault on government sites around the capital, little is known about the attack.
Authorities, diplomats and even the US Federal Bureau of Investigation are trying to unravel a series of often contradictory reports to find out how events unfolded.
Few witnesses are willing to talk candidly about their experiences. Some say they fear incriminating themselves and being charged as rebels. Others say they fear for their lives.
But lying in bed at his Tuol Kok home recently, heavily drugged with Valium and morphine, the bruised disk jockey was ready to talk.
Some time before 1:30 on that Friday morning, Sope left friends at a karaoke club, begging off a late-night carousal because he had a cold and had been taking medicine.
He’d already finished a stint at the ‘60s Pub on Monivong Boulevard, where he regularly DJs. He only wanted to go home and sleep, so he got into his Hundai Excel and drove to Pochentong Boulevard, his usual route home.
He cruised past the railway station, then the Council of Ministers building. Finally he reached a large statue of two deer that adorns the boulevard’s grassy median strip and was stopped by a group of men armed with AK-47 and M-16 assault rifles.
“I thought it was just a regular roadblock,” Sope said.
It wasn’t. Alleged recruits of the Cambodian Freedom Fighters, a US-based anti-government group, the men were in the middle of a battle to seize control of the government.
Sope counted at least twenty men. Some wore military fatigues. Some wore orange arm and head bands. Others carried backpacks stuffed with B-40 rocket tips.
Sope wore a navy blue shirt, white pants and a baseball cap with “New York” emblazoned across the crown—the uniform, not of an insurgent, but of a California hipster.
The men pulled Sope from his car and held him at gunpoint across the street from the Ministry of Defense. He was joined by two more hostages who were also snatched from passing cars.
Sope later identified one of those hostages from a newspaper photograph. He was Hor Uy Samonn, a police captain and security guard killed in the fighting, the DJ said.
The three were muscled around by the gunmen, who seemed edgy and disorganized but ready to fight, Sope said. Some of the rebels—more composed than the others—were gesturing, talking on radios and commanding the attack.
The three hostages were then told to walk across the median strip, past the two-deer statue toward the Ministry of Defense where RCAF soldiers waited, armed and ready for battle. Afraid of being shot by the nervous rebels, the hostages did as they were told, walking slowly across the grass and into the intersection with Tchecoslovaquie Boulevard.
As soon as the three stepped into the road, the rebel guns opened fire at the soldiers. RCAF troops returned fire, and a terrible gun battle ensued.
Sope and the other hostages moved dazedly across the street.
Shots came from the rebels behind them, from rebels on the corner at the Ministry of Rural Development, and from soldiers across Tchecoslovaquie Boulevard.
“Shots came from everywhere,” Sope said. “We were caught in a cross-fire.”
Nearby, the man he identified as Hor Uy Samonn “dropped,” Sope said. The whereabouts of the third hostage, who ran back toward the rebels, remains unclear.
Hor Oy Samonn was to die of his injuries. Police claim he was one of the rebels, a charge his widow denies. She said her husband had no connection with the CFF, that he was simply caught up in the debacle as he drove home from his regular night job as a security guard.
“I know this guy was a civilian,” Sope said during the interview, pointing to a picture of the man that appeared in The Cambodia Daily.
While the rebels wore fatigues or CFF T-shirts approximating uniforms, Hor Oy Samonn had been wearing a black, short-sleeved shirt with an emblem on the front, Sope said. Staff at Karaoke 88, where Hor Uy Samonn was last seen alive, confirmed he was wearing a shirt matching that description.
And unlike the rebels, the off-duty police officer tried to help Sope.
“He said, ‘Little brother, take off your shirt,’” to prevent the soldiers from mistaking him for a rebel, Sope said.
As soon as he saw Hor Oy Samonn fall, Sope dashed toward the nearest cover: a concrete light post in front of the Rural Development building, facing the soldiers.
But before he could reach it he was hit. The bullet entered about five centimeters above his knee, lodging in the flesh of his inner leg.
“I knew I was hit because I saw the blood splatter on my leg,” Sope said. “But everything was numb.”
He made it to the light pole, but soldiers, mistaking him for a rebel, continued to lay fire on him.
“There were bullets flying toward me. They were hitting [in] back of me, the front of me, zipping by my head.”
As fighting raged on, the military brought out two armored personnel carriers, which directed heavy machine-gun fire at the rebels.
By then Sope began to worry he wouldn’t make it. He began to pray. He tried to make himself cry so the soldiers wouldn’t keep shooting at him, but the tears wouldn’t come.
Then he stripped to his briefs.
It was something he’d learned as a child during the brutal Khmer Rouge regime of the late 1970s: When you come under fire, take off your clothes and beg for mercy.
During a lull in the fighting, some soldiers shouted at him to come out, even as others continued shooting. Hesitantly, the near-naked disk jockey stepped forward, hands up, shouting, “I’m an emcee. I’m an emcee.”
A soldier smashed him in the head with a rifle butt, knocking him to the ground, Sope said. Then a number of soldiers repeatedly kicked him and beat him with their rifles, he said.
Sope alleges the soldiers then argued over whether or not to kill him. He said a “big argument” between two high-ranking soldiers ensued, one of them saying, “finish him off.”
Struggling to remain conscious, Sope continued to protest that he was just an entertainer. He alleges one soldier retorted, “‘No, you’re a liar. What are you doing out at night? I make $30 a month. Why am I putting my life on the line for you?’”
“They didn’t want to take no prisoners,” the disgruntled disk jockey claims.
But police categorically deny this allegation. Some men were wounded during the battle and others were hurt resisting arrest, but police did not beat suspects or deliberately injure innocent bystanders, said Sim Hong, deputy commander of Municipal Military Police.
“Please do not pay too much attention to those rumors,” he said earlier this week. “There is nothing right [in them].”
Sope was then told to lie down on a grassy strip next to the Defense Ministry while the fighting continued. From there he saw two other men go down, one a rebel taking cover behind the Rural Development building, and another man on Tchecoslovaquie Boulevard farther south.
“But I don’t know if that guy was civilian or not,” Sope said.
When the fighting eventually stopped, the soldiers still weren’t sure what to do with their celebrity captive. Some wanted to shoot him, he claims, but one recognized him as a host for TV3.
Ultimately he was turned over to police and marched to headquarters in his underwear, hands bound in front of him with black electrical wire. Blood from his head injury streamed down his body, soaking his shorts.
At the station police confirmed his identity. In his mugshot he is named, not by his legal name, Sophoann Sope Hul, but simply as “DJ Sope.” But he remained under arrest, locked in a cell with a score of other suspects, his wounds bandaged but without painkillers, until the afternoon when friends came to vouch for him.
He was then taken to Preah Ket Mealea, a military hospital where wounded suspects were cared for. The bullet finally was removed from his leg after a series of botched surgeries, X-rays, and power failures, Sope said.
The experience has left the normally ebullient entertainer downbeat and apprehensive. He says he’s afraid someone may come after him to eliminate him as a witness. And he has had to fly to the US, where he once lived, to have more shrapnel removed from his leg.
But trauma will not keep him away from Cambodia.
“I’m not leaving,” he said, shortly before taking a morphine injection and easing back into a couch. “I love my show. I love being on the radio. I love my fans. This is my life. This is what I do.”
Since the attack, some fans have been concerned for his well-being, while others have asked if the renowned disc jockey is also a terrorist.
“Hell no!” he exploded. “Absolutely no. Never even thought about it.”
(Additional reporting by Phann Ana and Ana Nov)