The sister of a sex worker who fell off a boat and drowned in the Tonle Sap river on Sunday night said she planned to file a criminal complaint against the district security guards who were chasing her down and made no attempt to rescue her after she plunged into the water.
In an attempt to round up and detain a group of women selling sex along the riverside, Daun Penh district security guards pursued Pen Kunthea, 33, onto a tourist boat. She slipped while jumping from one boat to another, struck her head and disappeared into the river below, according to one of the boat owners.
Kim Vutha, head of the district guards, said on Tuesday that he didn’t believe the woman had died, speculating that she jumped into the river to escape his men and flee to the provinces.
Mr. Vutha was wrong. Pen Kunthea’s body was found under the Monivong bridge on the Tonle Bassac river on Tuesday night, said Hun Sophal, chief of police in Chbar Ampov district’s Chbar Ampov I commune.
“At about 7:30 p.m., the relatives who were trying to search for the body saw the victim’s body under the bridge,” he said.
Mr. Vutha and his men left Pen Kunthea to drown, making no effort to call other authorities to help save her. One witness said she was even threatened by the guards when she attempted to help the victim.
“Daun Penh district security guards have to be responsible,” said Pen Meng Ky, Pen Kunthea’s sister. “I will file a complaint after the seven days funeral. They could do it again if I don’t file a complaint against them.”
“When they saw my sister raise her hand asking for help, they just left her in the water,” she added. “They cannot remain comfortable.”
Mr. Vutha could not be reached on Wednesday. On Tuesday, he said there were no grounds to search for the woman, as witness accounts were not enough to establish that she had fallen into the water.
Daun Penh district police chief Hout Chanyaran said he had nothing to do with the drowning in his jurisdiction.
“I don’t know, please ask district authorities,” he said. “They worked on it.”
Other senior Phnom Penh police officials could not be reached for comment.
Local rights groups on Wednesday condemned authorities’ response, which starkly contrasted with a Navy-supported search for an American man who fell into the Tonle Sap near the same spot last month and also drowned.
Chak Sopheap, the director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, was doubtful a lack of evidence was the real reason behind the inaction.
“The Phnom Penh authorities clearly seem to think that the life of a woman and a sex worker—a group that has often faced discrimination, harassment and stigmatization—is not of equal value to other persons who have fallen into the river and been the subject of extensive search operations,” she said.
“The authorities’ feeble excuses that they had no evidence Ms. Kunthea had fallen in the water demonstrates a total disregard for the value of Ms. Kunthea’s life,” Ms. Sopheap said.
Thida Khus, the head of women’s rights group Silaka, said that legal action against the guards would be well-deserved.
“They ran after her illegally, so they are the cause of her drowning—they killed her,” she said, adding that Pen Kunthea “is a prostitute—she is not illegal.”
Ms. Khus said the guards’ response after the chase was also illegal. “They did not even try to rescue her. That’s a crime; they are violating the law.”