Cambodians at home and abroad yesterday mourned the passing of peacekeeper Im Sam, who was shot to death during a guerrilla ambush in Central African Republic. He was the Kingdom’s first peacekeeper to ever be killed in combat, officials said.
Sam, 36, who was serving in Central African Republic as a bulldozer driver, was travelling in a convoy when it was targeted by unidentified “armed elements” at around 8pm on Monday night near the village of Yogofongo.
Another Cambodian peacekeeper, Thuch Thim, suffered an injury to his left hand in the attack, and an additional three Cambodians – quality control assistant Seang Norin, excavator driver assistant Mom Tola and medical staffer Mao Eng – remain missing.
The 12 peacekeepers – an unarmed crew of Cambodian engineers accompanied by armed Moroccan forces – were returning from a work site in Rafai to their base in Bangassou when the guerrillas struck.
Details about the armed assailants – who fled into the bush after the attack – remain unknown. The resource-rich CAR has been ravaged by violent atrocities and the conscription of child soldiers, with the two main armed groups being the Muslim Seleka and the largely Christian and animist Anti-Balaka.
A statement provided by Cambodia’s National Centre for Peacekeeping Forces (NPMEC) confirmed the attack was motivated by guerrillas’ demands to liberate prisoners held by Moroccan forces.
In a speech yesterday, Prime Minister Hun Sen was the first to offer his condolences to Sam’s family for the blue helmet who had “sacrificed his life”.He questioned whether the missing Cambodians had fled or were kidnapped, and requested the UN to pay close attention to protecting the lives of their troops.
Pech Sambath, Sam’s superior officer, described him as “a great colleague”. “We give our heartfelt appreciation for the heroism of Im Sam, who has sacrificed [his life] for the national cause,” he said in a statement.
Photos circulating on social media, meanwhile, showed Cambodian peacekeepers in Lebanon standing in formation as the Cambodian flag flew at half mast in Sam’s honour.
The UN’s Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (Minusca) condemned the killing in a statement yesterday.
“Minusca vigorously denounces this odious attack on peacekeepers whose presence on Central African soil has no other objective than to help the country to protect its population and to allow the Central African Republic to emerge from the cycle of violence caused by armed groups,” it read.
It stressed that harming the life of a peacekeeper can be considered a war crime and that Minusca would do everything possible to ensure the perpetrators were brought to justice.
The special representative of the secretary-general and head of Minusca, Parfait Onanga-Anyanga, extended his “deepest and heartfelt condolences to the family of the victim, his contingent and his country”.
Intense speculation surrounded Sam’s death yesterday after South Korean Ambassador Long Dimanche claimed on Facebook that the peacekeeper had been beheaded – an account refuted by NPMEC spokesperson Kosal Malinda. “I would deny the report that he was beheaded The person was shot,” she said.
A photo circulated late yesterday, purportedly of Sam’s body, appeared to show his head intact and two deep gashes to his abdomen, but Malinda said she could not confirm the image’s authenticity.
Despite the violence and tragedy of the attack, NPMEC Deputy Director-General Phal Samorn, said Cambodia’s expertise in demining – coupled with the UN peacekeeping assistance it received in 1993 – meant it was both obligated and “proud” to serve in dangerous countries abroad. “We used to have war, that’s why we have to help them. It is humanitarian work for us,” Samorn said.
Dr Paul Chambers, a lecturer in international affairs at Naresuan University in Thailand, said post-conflict countries tend to bear a bigger burden than industrialised ones in supplying blue helmets, but noted there was also a financial incentive for poorer militaries like the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) in the form of UN income. “The dangerous burden is borne by lower-echelon Cambodian soldiers who often find themselves in . . . harm’s way,” he said via email.
“The benefits are the enhanced prestige, UN funding and experience for the RCAF and its senior officers. This is the tragedy of Cambodia’s military hierarchy.”
A total of six Cambodian blue helmets have died on missions abroad, including Sam, although he is the first to be killed in combat. Four passed away in Mali one from – malaria, one in a sandstorm and two due to food poisonin – while another died in the CAR from malaria.