Draped in mourning white, Ly Neary lit a stick of incense at Phnom Penh’s Wat Botum Park on Friday morning, a tribute to her murdered son, journalist Chet Doung Daravuth, who was among at least 16 killed in a grenade on this day 21 years ago.
“Twenty-one years passed by, but I still remembered when I saw my son’s body broken in pieces with blood stains all over this place,” she said. “It was a very cruel attack and justice has not prevailed for the victims.”
Neary, a former senator with the Candlelight Party – the renamed Sam Rainsy Party – spoke before a collection of 40 mourners under overcast skies. They prayed with Buddhist monks before a dozen photos of those slain in the grenade attack of March 30, 1997.
Among them were former Cambodia National Rescue Party senior members Pol Ham and Son Chhay, making a rare appearance and public statements since the arrest of leader Kem Sokha for “treason” and the forced dissolution of their party.
On that sweltering day 21 years ago, the Khmer National Party held a rally led by former CNRP president Sam Rainsy, calling for judicial reform. Four grenades were hurled into the crowd, killing at least 16 people, including schoolchildren and Rainsy’s bodyguard, and injuring more than 100 others.
Davaruth, a journalist with pro-opposition newspaper Neak Proyuth, was just 30.
Despite the government’s promises and an FBI investigation, which, while not conclusive, pointed to the likely involvement of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit, no perpetrators were ever punished.
On Friday morning Neary appealed to the government to take steps to prevent such a tragedy from reoccurring.
“Stop the violence, arrests, and shooting, because all human lives are invaluable,” she said at the ceremony.
She had few words for reporters before walking away with tears in her eyes: “There is no justice. Only if you change this regime.”
Climate of fear
Friday’s ceremony was a more subdued affair than previous anniversaries commemorating the tragedy, with Rainsy giving a rousing speech to hundreds via Skype at last year’s event.
Phnom Penh City Hall this year barred the use of loudspeakers and banners to ensure there would be “no forum to express comments and attack top government institutions”. Plain clothed-police were also circling the venue.
Just three family members of slain victims attended the event, with two saying they arrived late as they received very short notice from the Candlelight Party about the ceremony.
One of them, Ngo Kheng, 47, came to honour his late father-in-law, Sum Sarin, who was killed at the age of 59. A father of garment workers, Sarin had attended the rally to call for improved conditions and wages on the factory floor.
“I came late, when the monks already left, but I saw the photo of my father-in-law and put the incense stick at the stupa,” he said. “In the past, the opposition party called us three or four days before the event, but this year … they call us late yesterday evening.”
“I understand this is because the political situation is not good to the opposition party, because they already have been dissolved.”
Ruling Cambodian People’s Party spokesman Sok Eysan said lower numbers of people marking the event was for the best.
“It’s good that they fear, to avoid problems from occurring again,” he said.
“The investigation wrapped up in 2004, and they find nothing. There is no clue at all,” he said, saying the FBI wanted to “blame” the ruling party because they were “building the country”.
Rainsy, who fled Cambodia in 2015 amid a slew of politically tinged convictions, said he had continued to lead the fight for an independent judiciary with risky protests.
"Sad to say there is still no separation of powers, meaning our call for democracy remains an uphill battle," he said in an email from Switzerland. "But, in spite of the atmosphere of fear and intimidation, the population's understanding and determination has dramatically moved forwards, thus strengthening our hope of a democratic change in the near future."
Former CNRP lawmaker Son Chhay said the grenade attack was a sad moment in Cambodia’s history that people taking to the streets to campaign for corruption-free courts had grenades tossed at them instead.
“It was a horrible moment that we cannot forget,” he said. We must “remember them, and this sacrifice for that good cause”.
He lamented that the push for an independent judiciary was not heeded then and the situation had, in fact, grown worse, noting the ongoing detention of Sokha, whom Chhay said should be released as there was “no hard evidence” of treason after six months of investigation.
“The justice system is worse, it’s not getting any better,” he said, citing comments made by the UN’s special rapporteur for human rights on her recent visit.
“You cannot destroy the party and ban 118 leaders of the party without any evidence of their wrongdoing,” Chhay said. “You cannot say one leader of an organisation rapes someone and the rest of them also enjoy the raping of women. It’s not true.”
Chhay said constant government pressure on the opposition was something he and other CNRP members remaining in Cambodia had to “live with”.
He said his own recent media silence was because he didn’t “have much to say after the party had been dissolved”. Commenting was better left to those outside Cambodia lobbying the international community for intervention, he said.
“No need for us in the country to do any more," he said. “What I have been doing and always try to do is to avoid saying or doing anything that could be used as an excuse to arrest me.”