After killing three people while racing the wrong way down a busy Phnom Penh boulevard, Meas Sok Heng was dragged from his car and pounced upon by dozens of furious onlookers. As the attack was still taking place, a live Facebook stream showed police officers attempting to prevent kicks, punches and slabs of concrete from landing on the driver’s limp body.
Mr. Sok Heng, 30, has since been hospitalized on life support, with doctors pessimistic about his chances of recovery.
Four years ago, just down the road from Monday’s crash on Monivong Boulevard, a 23-year-old medical student left a strikingly similar trail of destruction. Keampisith Narita, a daughter of a provincial health department official, killed three children while fleeing two minor crashes on Norodom Boulevard.
Unlike Mr. Sok Heng, who also was fleeing a minor collision, the budding doctor made it to the Interior Ministry, where she was arrested and protected from angry motorists who had witnessed the carnage.
She spent just three months in prison after having a more lengthy sentence suspended, and continued to pursue her career in medicine. Her father paid compensation to the families of the young victims.
The two fatal incidents illustrate why people often take justice into their own hands rather than leaving it to the notoriously corrupt legal system. Those who chased Ms. Narita to the gates of the Interior Ministry, for example, might not have seen one month in prison for each life she took as sufficient punishment.
The fear of the mob, in turn, has made hit-and-runs commonplace, with drivers often excused for attempting to flee street justice, and the law allowing for drivers involved in accidents to head to the nearest police outpost. However, those drivers, including a number of government officials over the years, have often ended up avoiding punishment in the courts, a situation that does little to deter vigilante justice.
Billy Chia-Lung Tai, a human rights and legal consultant previously based in Phnom Penh, said the reasons people flee the scene of a crash are often related to social standing.
“While people may flee for different reasons, for the wealthy and powerful, as long as they can avoid being caught ‘red-handed’ (though in the age of digital devices and their popularity in Cambodia this is becoming increasingly more difficult), it’s then easier to wield their power and influence to make the problem go away,” he said in an email.
“The ‘rest’ of the population flee because they believe if they can avoid being captured the police would lose interest because there would no incentive (financial and otherwise) to investigate and to track them down,” he added. “Two sides of the same coin really.”
According to the Traffic Law, hit-and-runs that result in death carry up to five years in prison. However, Mr. Chia-Lung Tai said most Cambodians’ understanding of the law was minimal. When it comes to mob violence, people have the well-supported belief that there will be no punishment for participating.
Prominent human rights lawyer Sok Sam Oeun said authorities needed to do more to deter mob violence and make people think twice about taking the law into their own hands.
“Right now, maybe they have many videos showing who beat the person. Maybe the police should take action in an investigation. ‘Why did you kill? Why did you do that?’” he said.
“In all these things, you should be aware that if you join the mob killing maybe you will be under investigation into who committed the killing…and you can go to jail.”
While there are no official statistics on mob attacks, in 2005, Peter Leuprecht, then-U.N. special representative for human rights to Cambodia, noted that more than 100 people had been killed by mobs in the previous five years, often with the complicity of officials.
While the number of mob killings may have dropped since then, there remains very little—if any—effort by authorities to track down those involved in such attacks.
Run Rathveasna, director of the Interior Ministry’s public order department, agreed that there was an expectation of impunity among those taking part in mob beatings, and said the best response from officials would be to educate people about the law.
“It’s because the attackers do not understand what they are doing is an illegal act,” he said. “They can stop [the driver], but they have to hand the driver over to the authorities that enforce the law.”
Among the hundreds of people loitering around the three bloodied corpses on the street on Monday night, there were differing opinions about whether Mr. Sok Heng also deserved to meet his end that night.
“It is the right thing,” said Chan Dara, who was traveling along the street when the incident happened. “In my opinion, he should not be given a life because he killed so many people.”
Kheng Pheara, a student, thought the driver should be allowed to live.
“For me, I don’t support beating him to death,” he said. “Keep him alive so he can pay the families compensation.”