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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Stupa standoff simmers after fourth round

Stupa standoff simmers after fourth round

Stupa standoff simmers after fourth round

stupa1.jpg
stupa1.jpg

The fourth stupa, containing a Buddha image and victims' ashes

C

HIN POK, a 62-year-old retired food seller, sleeps in the park opposite the National

Assembly every night guarding the memorial stupa for the victims of the deadly March

30, 1997, grenade attack against a Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) demonstration.

Pok's nephew, Nem Lon, was last seen at the Rainsy demonstration demanding judicial

reform in Cambodia. His body disappeared during the chaos and carnage which resulted

when four grenades were thrown into the midst of the rally killing up to 20 people

and wounding some 150 others. No one has been prosecuted for the murders.

Because her nephew's body was never recovered, his name is not on the stupa, nevertheless

Pok feels it honor's the young man's memory.

Attempts by Rainsy supporters, and others who simply believe a memorial stupa should

be placed at the scene of the bloody attack, have resulted in a seven-week standoff

pitting them against government authorities opposed to the stupa's present location.

"We are trying to protect the stupa and we will not move unless we have orders

from the King," said Pok, who has seen three stupas destroyed since the Rainsy

supporters began erecting them on the third anniversary of the attack

"I was very shocked when the military police came to destroy the stupa [early

in the morning of May 18]. The police pushed me down several times and stepped on

me. I fled towards the palace, but came back later to pick up pieces [of the stupa]

that the police did not take. I spent the rest of the night sleeping outside the

US Embassy because I thought they could protect me from arrest.

"I am still very scared to stay here, but this is a struggle for the victims'

souls," said Pok.

The first memorial stupa was installed on the footpath across the street from the

National Assembly on March 29, the eve of the third anniversary of the attack. Two

days later the small, battered stupa was found beside a sewerage outlet on the bank

of the Tonle Sap.

Rainsy supporters removed the stupa from the mud and returned it to its location

across from the National Assembly. On April 30 it was pounded to rubble.

The next stupa was erected on May 16. The following morning it was carried away by

police and dumped off the Japanese Friendship Bridge into the river. Later that same

morning a third stupa appeared, only to be smashed by the police who raced away with

the debris as an emotional crowd of Rainsy supporters and victims' families watched

helplessly.

Not to be deterred, Rainsy installed a fourth stupa that afternoon and it remains

standing at the time the Post went to press. Ashes of eight of the grenade attack

victims were placed inside the stupa, along with a statue of the Buddha, during a

somber Buddhist ceremony arranged immediately after the fourth stupa was installed.

Rainsy said he is certain it is Prime Minister Hun Sen who has ordered the repeated

attacks on the memorial stupas. He said the public should not be distracted by the

technicalities of the Phnom Penh municipality's arguments that the stupa is there

without a permit, that it blocks views, or is not suitably attractive.

"The real issue is that it is symbolic. Hun Sen wants to wipe out peoples' memories

- he does not want them to remember the attack. On the contrary, we want to create

a place where people can come and remember and pay respect to the victims,"

said Rainsy.

The Governor of Phnom Penh, Chea Sophara, said if he allows the Sam Rainsy Party

to build a stupa then he fears the other 38 political parties will demand the right

to build stupas for their members killed in political violence.

"As for the Cambodian People's Party, we have a lot of people who died for the

nation and for our party's interest. We could build 1000 stupas like this in one

day," said Sophara, "For myself, I can build more than 2000 stupas in one

day."

But Sophara said building a stupa on a public footpath is not suitable. He said it

would be best if they placed the stupa in a pagoda. To have a stupa in a public place

the stupa must have the approval of Phnom Penh's Construction Department - which

the SRP did not have - and be of good design.

Rainsy said there could be room for compromise between the municipality and the SRP

over the placement of the stupa. "It could be bigger in size and right in the

middle of the park," he said. "Where the stupa stands now is where the

third and most deadly grenade landed.

"[The municipality] wants us to put the stupa in front of the Botum Pagoda.

It is far, far [from the present site]. The present location of the stupa is really

meaningful - in the middle of the bloody scene of the attack. But I think from any

stupa we should see the area where the grenades landed," said Rainsy.

On May 19 SRP representatives met Prince Sirivudh, Prince Chakrapong and other representatives

of the palace to ask the King to mediate in the dispute. Rainsy told the Post : "The

King has implicitly accepted to play the role as mediator."

Rainsy said the people killed and injured in the grenade attack were demonstrating

about the weakness of Cambodia's judicial system - now a timely topic as Hun Sen

wrestles with the United Nations over the Khmer Rouge (KR) trials.

Samdech Sanghareach Bour Kry, the Supreme Patriarch who resides at Wat Botum Videi

- where municipal authorities want the stupa moved - said there are no specific rules

about where stupas must be located. But he warned people must never destroy a stupa

containing ashes or a Buddha image.

"I drove past the stupa and I saw a Buddha statue placed inside. I am very concerned

that if someone tries to destroy the stupa, they will smash the Buddha statue. It

would be like they were attacking the Buddhist religion. It would not be nice to

see a photograph of someone smashing the Buddha statue," said Samdech Sanghareach

Bour Kry.

Some of the military police ordered to destroy the stupa found their duty very troubling.

Peng Seth, a 37-year-old former military police lieutenant, was stripped of his rank

after refusing to smash the stupa on the night of May 17.

Seth said he does not support any side in the issue, but smashing stupas is not the

Buddhist way. As an orphan, Seth said he would be very happy to know his mother and

father were honored like this, so could not bring himself to obey the orders to destroy

someone else's stupa.

"Most of the men did not want to destroy the stupa, but they were hit and threatened

by their commanders," said Seth.

Rainsy said those who died were from poor families, who could not each afford to

erect a stupa for the relatives they lost.

"[The families] said 'Our children died there. Let's put them together as they

died together for the same cause on the same day'," said Rainsy.

A member of an SRP breakaway faction, Lao Rachana, said her group has received permission

from the Phnom Penh Municipal authorities to build their own memorial stupa for t

hose killed in the grenade attack.

She said three of the grenade victim's relatives, whom she did not name, had complained

about the location of the Rainsy stupa, and would attend the opening ceremony of

her group's stupa.

Rainsy said the stupa's placement has great personal and emotional meaning. "I

remember the names and the faces of these people. It means a lot to me. I talked

to them seconds before they died. I had invited them to join me."

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