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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Chronicle of a death foretold

Chronicle of a death foretold

Portrait of assassinated Buddhist leader Sam Bunthoeurn at the Oudong meditation center.

Enshrined in graceful hillside stupas above the former royal capital of Oudong are

the ashes of long ago Cambodian kings. Historians claim that among those entombed

here are the remains of Chey Chetta II and Ang Duang.

Oudong, 40 kilometers north of Phnom Penh, was fiercely fought over during the Lon

Not era, and many of its 19th-century temples destroyed. Although one of Cambodia's

most revered historic sites, it has also been a place of mourning and dispute.

Today, and for almost three years, it has also been home to one very controversial

- and curious - memorial.

In a converted Koxka-brand supermarket freezer, on the second floor of a stately

shrine set aside for prayer and Buddhist song, lies the semi-frozen body of assassinated

Buddhist leader Sam Bunthoeurn. Since the day after his death on February 8, 2003,

the body of the former president of the Buddhist Meditation Center has been displayed

under the thick glass of an industrial refrigeration machine that hums on and off

at five-minute intervals.

But Bunthoeurn's cold casket is more than a curiosity. It is a revered shrine for

the many former followers of this popular, outspoken religious leader. It is also

a fitting reminder of a brutal unsolved mystery that Kek Galabru, founder of rights

group Licado, says fits into a legacy of brazen impunity that exists in Cambodia

even today.

On February 6, 2003, Buntheourn was shot three times by two gunmen outside Wat Langka

in Phnom Penh. He died two days later in Calmette Hospital. No suspects have ever

been charged.

Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, said this week that [municipal]

police have not reported any information about their investigation to the ministry,

but added that the investigation will continue until the perpetrators are arrested

and punished.

"The case is still on the list of on-going investigations, and it will continue

to be for as long as it takes for justice to be found for the victims," he said.

"The heron always forgets the trap, but the trap never forgets the heron."

The body of Sam Bunthoeurn lies in a temperature-controlled casket fashioned from a supermarket freezer, top, at Oudong's Buddhist Center.

Subsequent to the assassination, human rights group Adhoc conducted an investigation

which found that five witnesses to the killing had given descriptions of the killers

to police. Also at that time, then Minister of Cults and Religion sent a letter of

complaint to the Ministry of Interior about the investigation.

On December 1 a current high-ranking official at the Ministry of Cults and Religions

said that on the afternoon of the day that Sam Bunthoeurn was killed he filed a statement

at the Ministry of Interior.

"I never got a reply. I was prepared to tell them about that day but no police

or officials have ever come to talk to me," said the official, who refused to

be named. "I wrote in the statement that I was with Sam Bunthoeurn the day he

was killed. School had finished at 9am as normal and we were talking when he received

a phone call. He said 'Wait a minute; I am busy talking to a teacher' and then he

left. I was informed that he was killed minutes later at the entrance to Wat Langka."

The motives for the killing are still unclear. Varying accounts collected by the

Post stretch from a financial dispute with a building contractor, to rivalry with

another religious leader, to Bunthoeurn's advocacy of monks casting votes in national

elections.

"We have issued many statements requesting that the government arrest the real

killer," Galabru said. "We hope that the government will investigate the

case more deeply - to reduce impunity and encourage the people's belief in authority."

A recent visit to Oudong found that Bunthoeurn's body has suffered from deterioration.

His eyelids are ajar, revealing white, orbless eyes. His face has developed patches

of discoloration and the skin of his arms has become corded and stiff.

"The reason we preserve him is because so many people want to pay their respects

to him and his accomplishments," said 65-year-old monk Un Boeun. "If we

had cremated him then people would only see bones in a pot. No one could see his

real face."

Buddhist monk Meng Neng, 29, claims that on the night Bunthoeurn's body was brought

to Oudong nearly 1,000 people joined the procession from Phnom Penh

"After he passed away at Calmette, he was brought here in a large parade,"

he said. "The doctor and the technical expert came and made the preservation.

A [taxidermist] removed his organs and replaced them. He used chemicals on the body."

Details of the preservation process were unavailable, but Oudong monks said that

the refrigerated casket was custom made and very expensive. The glass top is removable,

but has only been taken off twice for cleaning. The Website of the Koxka company

describes the refrigeration unit used at Oudong as "ideally suited for the promotional

sale of frozen food or ice cream."

Neng Tha, 78, a former student of Bunthoeurn, said that she was sad and unhappy for a long time after he was killed. Now she cleans his resting place every day.

"He is preserved at zero degrees," Neng said. "At first it was freezing

his skin and shrinking it up. We had to adjust the temperature control so that it

turns on and off. We cannot say how long the body will last. We will preserve it

until the body is lost and then we will have a cremation."

Boeun, who described Bunthoeurn as "a very moral man who loved peace,"

has a more pragmatic concern.

"We appeal to all organizations and NGOs to provide us with a solar machine

to preserve the body," he said. "It would reduce the cost of fuel that

we must buy to run the generators. It is becoming too expensive."

According to Boeun and other monks, thousands have visited the memorial over the

nearly three years since his murder. Neng Tha, a 78-year-old former student of Bunthoeurn

who lives nearby and cleans the memorial each day, said that an average of 200 people

visit daily.

"Before he died he told his mother it was going to happen," Boeun said.

"He said that he dreamed it. He told us all that he foresaw the killing and

that he would not be alive long. Many of his students asked him not to leave, but

he did."

Nim Choeung, a 26-year-old visitor from Takeo province, said he came to tour the

mountain and see the body of the preserved monk.

"He still looks alive," said Choeung. "I feel pity for him and for

other monks. I don't think holy people should be treated like that."

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