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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Dawn breaks for suspected thief

A woman walks past a house being built in Takeo’s Traing district
A woman walks past a house being built in Takeo’s Traing district yesterday. Authorities believe proceeds from the Oudong mountain theft were used to finance the house. Vireak Mai

Dawn breaks for suspected thief

Keo Reaksmey believed he was the brother of the sun.

The suspect arrested on Thursday over the theft of priceless Buddhist artefacts from Oudong mountain in December – a gentle and kind young man, according to neighbours – in September stole three cement statues from his local pagoda to build a shrine, locals and relatives said yesterday.

Donning a white robe and sash usually reserved for nuns, he would present offerings to the sun each day at dawn. He believed he was ordained with powers of invisibility and superhuman speed, a belief that several Kokoh villagers and police officers in Takeo’s Traing district seem to share.

“Recently he started to wear white robes and took three Buddha statues from Srey Sidh pagoda to our home. He displayed the statues and he prayed to the sun, telling [the sun] he’s its brother,” Reaksmey’s grandmother, Meas Nhe, 78, told the Post yesterday.

Bot Pheakday, director of the Sok An Khvav School in Khvav commune, where Reaksmey studied, said that Reaksmey was thought to have inherited the “powers” from his father.

“This man could run very fast, and turn invisible sometimes. I think he had magic powers,” he said. “His father was also wanted by the police in the past, but he always evaded capture and disappeared.”

Since the theft on December 10, the previously poor man had bought himself a $10,000 motorbike and a brand-new South Korean car, and had begun wandering the village in Takeo province’s Khvav commune in his robes, distributing money to local children.

Villagers and police officers also said Reaksmey had paid for a $10,000 house, which is still under construction, to be built on his relatives’ land. Nhe, however, maintained that she paid for the house from the profits she made as a panhandler.

“This house is mine, because I paid for it. I begged since I was 40 years old. This is my reward,” she said.

Reaksmey had attempted to join the local monastery, Srey Sidh, as a novice, but was rebuffed by the monks after spending a month sleeping on the pagoda grounds. Kokoh is not a poor village. Remittances from villagers working in Thailand and a steady income from the nearby rice paddies have allowed many families to build new concrete homes in recent years. But about a dozen villagers yesterday told the Post that despite the relative affluence of the locals, Reaksmey’s new-found wealth did not pass unnoticed.

“Last month, he [Reaksmey] bought a new car and was driving in the village. He gave money … to kids, being generous to them,” one villager, who did not give her name, said.

He also had a history of run-ins with the law.

In 2008, he served time for stealing two cows – from commune police officers. The following year he was back inside for causing the accidental death of another villager while he was driving.

Reaksmey is HIV-positive, having contracted the virus from his mother. She died when he was about five years old. His father, who was also HIV-positive, died shortly afterwards. Reaksmey was then raised by his grandmother.

Nhe told the Post yesterday that she travelled regularly to Phnom Penh to beg for money from rich Cambodians and tourists, claiming to net an average of $25 a day, which easily covered the room she rented in the capital.

“Some foreigners used to give me up to $20 at a time. I always beg on the street near the market, and people in luxury cars give up to $10. So I can earn up to 200,000 riel ($50) in a day,” she said.

Kandal provincial police chief Eav Chamroeun told the Post on Friday that Reaksmey took his grandmother to Oudong mountain to beg “every day”. Nhe denied ever having visited the mountain.

Three other members of his family yesterday denied knowledge of the theft of the relics from Oudong, but added that they believed Reaksmey had carried out the heist.

The golden urn, thought to contain mortal remains of the Buddha, was recovered from the corner of a disused kitchen in Nhe’s cousin’s house, where Reaksmey sometimes slept, along with about $700 in cash, one small golden statue with 10 embedded diamonds and the head of one of the concrete statues missing from the local pagoda, said family members and police officers who have remained on the scene in shifts since the discovery.

Mok Chito, chief of the Interior Ministry’s Central Justice Department, shows pictures of suspects in the theft of relics from Oudong mountain during a press conference
Mok Chito, chief of the Interior Ministry’s Central Justice Department, shows pictures of suspects in the theft of relics from Oudong mountain during a press conference in Phnom Penh yesterday. Vireak Mai

“We are stationed here, about eight to 10 people each day, from the commune and district police. I don’t know when we will move out of this house, but we only follow the orders from the National Police,” the deputy chief of police for Traing district, Teav Sovanna, said.

According to Sovanna and Hul Heng, the vice principal of the school that Reaksmey attended when he was a child, a second suspect, who was Reaksmey’s only friend, fled the village when the police arrived to search the house and news spread quickly of the find.

“The man has another close friend in this village, and he already fled the village and police are looking for him,” Heng said.

Mok Chito, director of the Interior Ministry’s Central Justice Department, alleged at a press conference yesterday morning that Reaksmey sold about 750 grams of gold melted down from 10 gold-plated statues he stole from Oudong along with the urn.

“We accept we were careless before, we should have been more careful, but it’s the guards’ carelessness that’s to blame, because they work there,” he said, adding that police were still searching for suspects.

The urn was brought to Cambodia from Sri Lanka in 1957 by the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk to commemorate the 2,500th anniversary of the Buddha’s birth.

Four guards at the Royal Treasury and a villager who lives nearby were arrested in December over thefts at the site and remain in jail awaiting trial.

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