Thet Theng has lost the use of his arm.
For 18 days, his mother, a constant at his bedside in the Intensive Care Unit of the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital in Phnom Penh, has repeated the same process: lifting her son’s right arm into the air and hoping that he can muster the strength to keep it up there.
On Monday, like every day he has spent in the hospital, Theng’s lame arm immediately flopped to his side. Military police brutally beat the 18-year-old garment worker with truncheons while he was attending a protest for higher wages on January 3 on Veng Sreng Street.
Theng remembers some of the events of that day, during which five people were killed and more than 40 wounded after military police armed with assault rifles opened fire on stone-throwing workers.
He remembers walking from his concrete rental room in Phnom Penh’s Pur Senchey district to his workplace in the Canadia Industrial Zone. He remembers joining the hordes of garment workers in protest, chanting and throwing stones. And he remembers the hundreds of heavily armed military police who broke up the demonstration with bullets.
“The police started moving towards us in a group, then they broke apart and a small group chased me and surrounded me—at least five of them,” Theng said Monday.
One of the officers produced an electric baton, raised it high over his head and brought it crashing down on the crown of Theng’s skull, he said.
“The last thing I saw was the [baton], then…I remember nothing. I don’t know how I got here or how I am still alive.”
Theng’s mother, Kuon Srey Om, 37, held up a scan of her son’s brain. It showed two dull patches, about the size of small apples. The doctor told her that the patches are blood clots swelling on her son’s brain, which is the reason he has lost use of his right arm, and which is already showing signs of muscle waste.
“[The police] hit him to kill him. Now he cannot work, and I can not work because I come here to look after him and we don’t know if he will ever have [use of] his arm again,” Ms. Srey Om said.
“How can we survive?” she asked.
Altogether there are several injured protesters still in hospital more than two weeks after the violence of January 3: the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital has six and one further victim remains in Calmette Hospital.
Dr. Chhoeung Yav Yen, deputy director of Khmer-Soviet, said the hospital did not have the capacity to diagnose the full extent of Theng’s head injuries.
“We cannot predict his condition in advance as we do not have any means to measure how much his brain has been damaged,” Dr. Yav Yen said, adding that the teenager will undergo brain surgery when he receives clearance from the hospital.
Muon Sokmean, a 29-year-old from Kompong Speu province, who moved to Pur Senchey to work in a garment factory to make ends meet for his family, is waiting on eye surgery.
Mr. Sokmean was surrounded and attacked by military police swinging their batons in the same onslaught as Theng and still sports deep blue bruises around his eyes and on the back of his neck.
His left eye works only 30 percent now, he says, and when he attempts to look hard to the left or right, his eyelid flickers uncontrollably, further stunting his vision.
“The police, when they hit me, they were yelling ‘why can’t you show us your strength now?’” Mr. Sokmean said of the prolonged beating he received with batons to his head.
“I had to concentrate very hard to remain strong and receive the punishment—otherwise I would have died there,” he recounted from his hospital bed, adding that in the days following the protest, his family had made preparations for his funeral, such were the severity of his injuries.
The remaining four patients in Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital are nursing bullet wounds to their legs and are healing fast, according to Dr. Yav Yen.
At Calmette Hospital, So Samnang, a 27-year-old tuk-tuk driver who was shot through the stomach as he watched the clashes from a third-floor balcony overlooking Veng Sreng Street, said he had moved from Preah Kossomak Hospital because he was not happy with the treatment he had received there.
“I am suspicious about the [quality of the] doctor’s surgery as there is still feces leaking from my intestines,” he said, referring to his still open bullet wound.
A doctor at Calmette Hospital, who asked not to be named, said he had not yet had the chance to properly examine Mr. Samnang’s injuries, but that they were not life threatening.
Chhiev Panith, the wife of Sam Ravy who was shot dead on Veng Sreng Street, said Monday that she had filed a complaint with local rights group Adhoc, asking for someone to be held accountable for the killing of her husband.
“I made my complaint with Adhoc but I dare not file a complaint with the Phnom Penh Municipal Court as I am too worried about my safety,” Ms. Panith said, adding that she would only feel comfortable complaining to the court if other victims did so first.
Ny Chakrya, head of local human rights group Adhoc, confirmed that he had received Ms. Panith’s complaint, taking to three the number of complaints filed about excessive force resulting in death of loved ones on January 3.
Brigadier General Kheng Tito, spokesman for the military police, claimed again Monday that the government has an ongoing investigation into “what caused the violence on Veng Sreng Street, and the second to study the extent of the damage caused by the violence in the area.”
Brig. Gen. Tito did not mention an investigation into the use of deadly force by the military police against stone-throwing youths and bystanders.
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