Thun Bun Ly's May 22 funeral was a pushing match through Phnom Penh. Jason Barber
AS Thun Bun Ly's funeral march degenerated into a macabre push and shove between
police and mourners, religion and respect for the dead seemed lost.
As a battle of wills over the route of the march developed - the police forcibly
pushing back the slain man's coffin with batons and shields - political theater took
The authorities clearly considered the march a political demonstration - one CPP
MP privately claimed there wasn't a body inside the coffin - while Sam Rainsy maintained
that mourners for a murdered man had the right to go where they pleased.
To him, that meant taking the body past the National Assembly and the Royal Palace.
The government refused, saying the procession should go the shortest route to Wat
Lanka for the cremation.
Confrontation came quickly. As about 200 marchers left Rainsy's Khmer Nation Party's
office - turning right toward the Royal Palace, instead of left to Norodom Blvd as
the police wanted - metal barricades blocked the way.
The truck carrying Bun Ly's body crawled to a halt. A young man shouted angrily at
the police; they stood firm. Rainsy appeared from behind, tossed aside a barricade
and strode forward. Whistles blew, a police vehicle was parked across the road, and
helmeted police with shields and batons fanned out behind it.
The truck with the casket, driven by an elderly man and carrying several monks and
Bun Ly's young son, edged forward. Police officers yelled for it to stop. Rainsy
and his party deputy Khieu Rada remonstrated with the police. Rainsy's bodyguards
- clad in gray, with black armbands - urged the truck's driver forward, before one
took over the steering wheel.
Anger in his eyes, the young bodyguard drove slowly forward; the first barricades
fell under the truck's wheels. Reversing backward, the obstruction was cleared, and
the truck went forward, and on to the footpath to get around the police van blocking
the road. The fray had begun.
Police commanders shrilled on their whistles, entreating their staff to hold their
lines. Their ranks broke as the truck continued forward, turned the corner and started
down St 19 behind the Royal Palace. Police, shields swinging, raced to catch up.
One stood lamely in front of the truck, walking backwards step by step as it advanced.
Two jeeps were maneuvered across the road ahead of the truck. Officers, toting automatic
rifles, spilled out from a nearby police station. A monk in the truck wailed over
"I'm a policeman. I love my country," shouted an angry KNP supporter, urging
the police to move the jeeps. Tempers flared, other mourners led him away. Photographers
clambered on to the jeeps and neighboring walls to get a better view. "If the
government wants to act stupid, let them act stupid," remarked an exasperated
foreign human rights worker.
The funeral truck was stuck. Bun Ly's coffin was carried off it and forward on mourners'
shoulders. In what became a familiar scene, a police chief bellowed at his subordinates
to do something, feigning a threatening kick in the air to spur them on.
At the corner with St 240, which leads toward the National Assembly, were more barricades
and riot police. As the mourners with coffin approached, a group of police surged
forward, shields raised.
The police shoved against the coffin, the mourners pushed back, the coffin was stuck.
The young son of Thun Bun Ly held relatives' hands and sobbed.
Behind the riot police were dozens more police with AK47s or M16s. One sat under
a tree, bearing a heavy machine gun. Around this time, a message was sent to the
Ministry of Interior: send more police.
Rainsy and Rada protested to the police and were rebuffed. They decided to go straight
to the National Assembly, which was in session that morning. Leaving the procession
stuck behind, the pair marched through the police lines with a small group of their
bodyguards and staff.
"This is a public road. I'm going to the National Assembly," said Rada
as a policeman tried to stop him.
"You are a rabble. You cannot pass," replied the policeman. Rada and Rainsy
pushed forward. In front of them, a white limousine - like that which carries guests
of Naga casino - did a quick U-turn and took off. A bemused looking Benny Widyono
- the United Nations special representative to Cambodia - happened to be passing.
"They're trying to stop us, Excellency," Rainsy said to him. Further down
the road chauffeurs jumped into parked cars belonging to parliamentarians, and reversed
quickly. One, at breakneck speed, almost ran down a woman.
A jeep sped up and stopped just in front of Rainsy and Rada, a handful of senior
police with rifles leaping out. The rifles threateningly came up, a foreigner raised
his hands, and Rainsy - holding up a small bunch of flowers - walked forward. The
police did nothing.
As Rainsy and Rada approached the National Assembly at the end of the road, cars
and police scattered. The assembly gates swung closed, armed guards in front. Several
ran into a concrete guardhouse, pulled out old AK47s, wiped dust off the guns and
pored over them to see if they were loaded. A jeep was put in front of the gates.
Rainsy walked up, holding the flowers, while assorted police and parliamentary guards
nervously fingered their guns. "They behave very badly toward the dead...they
should not be afraid of the dead," said Rainsy.
He telephoned Kem Sokha, head of the National As-sembly's human rights commission,
on a handphone. Sokha, at the Assembly session inside, spoke to Minister of Interior
You Hockry (Funcinpec). Later Loy Sim Chheang, the assembly's deputy chairman and
also Funcinpec's secretary-general, joined them. Eventually, according to Sokha,
both agreed the procession could go past the Assembly.
Sokha relayed the message to Rainsy outside. "Chey-yo! (Victory)" shouted
Rainsy and supporters as they headed back to the main procession. But there was no
victory. As the crowd surged forward, the police, guns raised, held them. A gnarled
commander whacked a laggard policeman, to get him into position.
A loud static buzz rang out: electric cattle prods used by the police. No-one yelled,
and no-one fell; the weapons were apparently turned on, to scare people, but not
being pushed against anyone. "That's the same things they use to torture people,"
murmured a human rights worker. Confusion reigned.
"All the rank and file have not received their orders yet," said Rainsy,
sweat seeping through his suit, in the belief the crowd would be let through. He
soon realized otherwise, and headed back to the assembly.
"They don't want the people of Phnom Penh, the people of Cambodia, the people
of the world, to remember this assassination," he said. "They want to forget
and to make us forget about it."
Back at the assembly, gates still shut and guards nervously milling around, Rainsy
called out for several parliamentarians inside: "Kem Sokha, Son Chhay, Loy Sim
Chheang, Son Soubert...anybody who dares."
Only two - Kem Sokha and Funcinpec's Ahmad Yahya - dared. Banging on the gates from
the inside to be let out, they joined Rainsy and went to talk to the police.
Yahya, asked whether the MPs inside were discussing the situation, said: "No,
they're just debating [a] law."
Sokha said that Hockry would no longer allow the procession to pass the Assembly,
but it could go down St 9 past Wat Botum and down Sihanouk Blvd to Wat Lanka.
The police didn't agree. Sokha went back to talk to Hockry, who, after receiving
a telephone call, changed his mind. "I don't know who called him," said
Sokha. "He said 'Excellency, Excellency.' I think maybe it was [co-Interior
Minister] Sar Kheng." Hockry turned to Sokha and said the marchers couldn't
go down Sihanouk Bld because "they will pass in front of the Second Prime Minister's
At some stage, Hockry met with the second in charge of the national police, King
Samnang (Funcinpec), telling him that if the situation got out of hand, the police
could confiscate the coffin and take it directly to Wat Lanka.
Who was in charge was unclear. The riot police were said to be controlled by Sar
Kheng, giving instructions by radio. Heavily-armed military police - believed loyal
to Hun Sen and not under Interior Ministry command - were lined up behind the riot
police. Arriving at the other end of St 240 were more carloads of police, loyalties
"Maybe they are receiving conflicting orders - it's a bit confusing," said
Rainsy. He was insistent the march pass the Assembly but, as the stalemate continued,
finally conceded. The procession turned around, the coffin reinstated on the funeral
truck, and headed back along St 240 to Norodom Bld, the officially-approved route.
Hundreds of police formed an unintended honor guard, blocking off side streets with
trucks, as the mourners headed down the boulevard to Independence Monument. There,
police directed the procession right toward St 51. Rainsy disagreed.
He wanted the procession to go three times around the monument - passing Hun Sen's
residence on its left. Another stand-off emerged. Rainsy, Rada and their bodyguards
left the procession, marching up the steps to the monument. After what appeared to
be some negotiation, Bun Ly's two widows and other relatives joined Rainsy at the
center of the monument. Several of the woman sat sobbing. Bun Ly's second wife was
tearless, looking uncomfortable and unhappy.
There they remained for nearly an hour, as uniformed police and plainclothes men
clutching walkie-talkies milled around. Rainsy, his wife Samaura and Bun Ly's relatives
prayed silently for a while, under the guns of police and the cameras of the press.
Rainsy stood up, posing for photographs, and walked around the monument.
Some military police arrived, shouting at people to leave. The buzz of electric cattle
prods went through the air. Sokha and Samaura whispered in Rainsy's ears, apparently
enticing him to leave. Rainsy's staff made frantic phone calls. Someone tried to
contact Prince Norodom Ranariddh but couldn't.
"This force seems to be under the direct orders of the Second Prime Minister,"
said Rainsy. "They have been told to clear this place and I believe they could
use force at any minute."
Rainsy eventually rejoined the march, at a standstill on Sihanouk Bld below. The
few monks who had been with the procession had gone - it was their lunch time - but
no-one seemed to notice or care.
The march restarted and traveled the short distance to St 51 and Wat Lanka. There
was one final warning: just past the entrance to the wat's crematorium stood a line
of riot police, cattle prods in their hands. The procession turned into the wat,
some three hours after it had first set off, and after religious ceremonies and speeches
by Rainsy and Rada, Thun Bun Ly was finally cremated.
It had been, perhaps, a fittingly contentious finale to the life of a controversial
man. And in the end, both sides seemed to have got, to some degree, what they wanted.
Thankfully, no more lives had been lost in the process.