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