Police in Phnom Penh are investigating claims by a busload of prominent anti-eviction activists that a man fired a bullet into the windshield of the chartered bus they were riding in on their way back to Phnom Penh Saturday night.
The roughly 50 passengers on-board were returning from a ceremony in Siem Reap province to mark the five-year anniversary of an eviction that turned violent. At about 8 p.m., they said, as they were driving through Daun Penh district, a man on a motorbike pulled in front of them and fired a single shot at the bus before speeding off. No one was injured.
Passengers on the bus included residents from Phnom Penh’s Boeng Kak and Borei Keila neighborhoods, some of whom have become well-known activists against the government’s eviction practices, and relatives of some of the five men fatally shot by military police during garment worker protests in January.
Song Sreyleap, one of the witnesses onboard, said the motorbike, with a man at the handlebars and a woman on the back, had been following them for about 15 minutes before it pulled up on the driver’s side of the bus.
“He pointed at our bus and we wondered why he was asking us to pull over…but we told the driver to keep driving,” she said.
She said they next saw the man on the motorbike a few minutes later drive up on the right side of the bus, this time without the woman, and pull in front of them before pulling a handgun out of his pocket and firing backward into the windshield of the bus with his left hand.
“The unidentified man drove a bike and used a handgun to shoot at our bus while we were on the way back home from Siem Reap,” Ms. Sreyleap said.
According to a copy of the complaint they filed with police Saturday night, the passengers on the bus who saw the man wielding the gun ducked for safety and heard a single gunshot before the windshield cracked. When they looked up, the man on the motorbike was gone.
Ms. Sreyleap said she had no doubt the man was targeting the bus because she and many of the others on board were known activists.
“We know it was attempted murder because the bus was carrying activists from Boeng Kak and Borei Keila and Thmar Kaul and fathers of the [garment] workers who were killed on January 3,” she said.
Bo Chhorvy, another passenger on the bus, corroborated the account.
“I saw him put his hand into his pocket and pull out his gun, and we all ducked and only heard the bang and did not dare to get up because we were afraid he would keep shooting,” she said. “Everyone was shocked and scared.”
The women said they filed their complaint with Srah Chak commune police as soon as they arrived in central Phnom Penh. They said the officers went to the scene of the alleged shooting that evening, where they reportedly found a gun holster but not the alleged bullet, which had badly cracked but not pierced the bus’ windshield.
Commune police chief Kann Vannak said his officers were looking into the report but would not say whether the windshield was indeed damaged by a bullet.
“We have received the complaint and we are investigating and we cannot jump to any conclusions yet,” he said.
Daun Penh district deputy police chief Nhem Sao Nol said his officers were also investigating the case, but his boss, district police chief Ouch Sokhon, dismissed the case as a “traffic accident.”
“It is a traffic accident, not a case of attempted killing,” he said, without explaining.
Phnom Penh municipal deputy police chief Choun Narin said his officers were taking part in the investigation as well but also dismissed the passengers’ claims of a political motive.
“They just made it up,” he said. “The bus was wading through a traffic jam and the driver [of the motorbike] got angry.
“There was no plot against them. We still don’t know if it was a rock or a bullet. We are investigating. It might be that the driver [of the motorbike] was drunk.”
Rights group Licadho is also investigating the case.
The passengers on the bus were in Siem Reap to mark the five-year anniversary of a 2009 eviction protest during which security forces shot and wounded four civilians. Some of the protesters were jailed for several months and no officer or official was ever prosecuted.