The dull thud of a large drum accompanied the funeral procession of Piseth Peaklica early Sunday morning as thousands of people crowded the grounds of the School of Fine Arts in northern Phnom Penh to pay final respects to the slain star.
In scorching heat, crowds lined the procession’s path to watch the coffin travel the short distance from the school’s main dance hall to a funeral pyre constructed on the school’s grass-covered playground. When the cremation of the body began shortly after 9 am, most estimates put the crowd at more than 10,000.
It was the biggest funeral in Cambodia in nearly 20 years, according to government spokesman Khieu Kanharith. He noted by telephone that the “1980 or 1981” funeral of Peou Youleng, the “very famous” dean of the School of Fine Arts, was probably the last one to match the scale of Sunday’s.
Sim Sarak, director of the culture department at the Ministry of Culture, said Sunday that it was the largest funeral he could remember and said the large turnout had national significance.
“There is a saying in Khmer, ‘when the culture is vanished, the nation is collapsed.’ I feel optimistic the people understand this….The national soul is still strong,” Sim Sarak said.
Piseth Peaklica, a 34-year-old actress and traditional dancer, died Tuesday, one week after assassins fired a hail of bullets at her and a 7-year-old niece in O’Russei Market in the central part of the capital. The niece is recovering. Authorities have said they have no leads in the daylight shooting.
Holding a bundle of flaming joss sticks, Minister of Culture Princess Bopha Devi on Sunday morning lit the fuse on an intricate network of fireworks which circled the grounds before igniting the funeral pyre of Piseth Peaklica.
Somber throughout the occassion, the princess told reporters the death was “a great loss for Cambodian culture and arts.” She added, “I hope the government will find the truth behind the killing and find justice for Piseth Peaklica.”
As the coffin was lifted and the procession started, Taeng Sovan, the 73-year-old grandmother of Piseth Peaklica, cried bitterly and broke into a high-pitched wail, saying “whoever caused this tragedy must be punished for what he did to my granddaughter!”
The shoulders of 13 men carried the coffin behind two people holding a large portrait-photograph of the deceased.
A distraught Khay Praseth, the ex-husband of Piseth Peaklica, was supported by family members as he trailed behind the casket as the procession wound its way through the crowd. A path was kept clear only because stern military police and and police officers blew whistles and pushed back surging masses.
As the casket reached it final resting place on the funeral pyre’s top platform, dozens of Buddhist monks began the cremation ceremony while dignitaries took their seats and the thousands of onlookers crammed together and tried to see over the heads of those near the front.
Military police were forced to take control of a potentially dangerous situation as people at the back pushed forward, crushing those trapped in the middle. No injuries were reported.
Shouting and blowing whistles, the police officers calmed the restless crowd by ordering those at the front to sit down.
More than two dozen young boys perched themselves high in the branches of a large tree.
Tears poured forth from many in the crowd when Tep Rin Daro, an actor and colleague of Piseth Peaklica’s at the Fine Arts School, wept during a speech broadcoast over a public address system.
“She was a great actress, dancer and mother,” Tep Rin Daro said haltingly through tears. “She is a symbol for us all. But we can never see her again.”
The outpouring of emotion, however, seemed muted in comparison to the grief expressed last week when thousands visited the school’s main dance hall, where Piseth Peaklica’s body was on display for five days. Covered in garlands of flowers, day-after-day people wept over the open coffin.
On Wednesday, people had wrestled with military police to force their way in through windows to see the actresses’ body in the hall where once she danced as a student then later taught as one of the country’s most renowned traditional dance teachers.
Prince Sisowath Panara Sirivudh, secretary of state at the Ministry of Culture, said the presence of thousands of people at Sunday’s funeral is “a direct demand for the arrest of the criminals.”
Teng Savong, deputy general of the National Police, who is heading the investigation into the assassination, issued an appeal Wednesday for information relating to the murder.
Teng Savong headed also the investigation into the March 30, 1997 grenade attack on Sam Rainsy protesters outside the National Assembly. With at least 17 people killed and more than 125 injured, the government’s failure to arrest anyone has cast a shadow over the government’s investigation capabilities.
Opposition parties and human rights groups have called that investigation a cover-up. Authorities have denied the charges.
Rumors published in the Khmer-language press last week that the jealous wife of a senior government official hired the hitmen that downed the film star continued to circulate Sunday at the funeral.
As the rain poured down Sunday evening, undertakers were busy removing the funeral platform as the family of Piseth Peaklica stood waiting to gather her ashes. Buddhist clergymen invoked good luck for her spirit in death and its noble rebirth. Hundreds of onlookers stood around during the final phase of the ceremony.
(Additional reporting by Phann Ana, Agence France-Presse and Associated Press)
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