Siem Reap provincial military police prohibited a group of villagers from rescuing three teen-agers who were caught in a storm on the Tonle Sap lake last month, and have stopped human rights officials from investigating the incident, an official with the human rights NGO Adhoc charged Monday.
“This is a criminal act,” said Chan Soveth, an investigator with Adhoc. “We cannot forgive the military police, because they abused and violated the human rights of these people.”
On Feb 10, 44-year-old Chea Sarin and his four children were fishing in a boat on the Tonle Sap lake in Prasat Bakong district, Siem Reap province. At around 1 am, the family was caught in a fierce storm that sank their boat, according to both provincial police and Chan Soveth.
Chea Sarin managed to place his children on an empty water cooler, keeping them afloat, before he swam to shore. But the storm swept the children into a fishing lot owned by two brothers, Taing Ly and Taing Savy, Chan Soveth said.
Once he reached shore, the father led villagers to the lake shore within the fishing lot, where they attempted to rescue the children. But two military police who were guarding the fishing lot kept the rescuers from saving the children, Chan Soveth charged.
Three children eventually drowned. Military police prevented Chea Sarin and the villagers from recovering the bodies for two days, Chan Soveth charged.
Chea Sarin and Adhoc wrote to Siem Reap parliamentarians in February asking them to press local authorities to investigate, but so far have received no reply, Chan Soveth said.
He also claimed local authorities have obstructed Adhoc officials in Siem Reap from investigating.
Siem Reap provincial officials disputed those allegations, as well as Chan Soveth’s version of the drownings.
“My military police only guard against illegal fishing and the illegal use of guns on fishing lots,” said Morn Samon, military police commander for Siem Reap province. “The police do not protect the landlords on the fishing lots. If I find any evidence showing that the military police did anything wrong, I will punish them.”
Phan Sarin, police chief for Prasat Bakong district, also denied that military police prohibited Chea Sarin and the villagers access to the drowning children.
“I heard this rumor, too, but the landlord cooperated with us and we have decided that the landlords and military police did not ban the savers from getting the children,” Phan Sarin said.
The storm kept the villagers from getting to the children on time, Phan Sarin said. When the storm cleared, six boats scoured the banks of the lake for the children but could only find one victim, Chea Bunhong, 19, Phan Sarin said. Another victim, Chea Sarath, was found some distance away, he said.
Phan Sarin disputed Chan Soveth’s body count, saying a child was found clinging to a tree two days later. That individual, identified as Chea Lay Heang, 17, was reported dead by Chan Soveth.