Cambodians Caught in Thai Border Crossfire

Three Cambodian nationals have been killed and two injured on the Thai border since the closing of the frontier following the Jan 29 anti-Thai riots, casualties of Thai security operations waged against cross-border banditry, smuggling and illegal immigration, officials say.

But the border death toll has now raised questions about the conduct of Thai security forces amid claims by Cambodian officials that they are “trigger happy” when it comes to dealing with alleged Cambodian criminals—and civilians—who attempt to cross the border illegally.

Last week, Prime Minister Hun Sen used the recent deaths of several Cambodians to justify closing the border with Thailand when he unleashed a stinging attack on Bangkok, which he claimed allowed Thai forces to kill Cambodians with impunity.

The allegation was vehemently denied by a Thai official on Tuesday, who said his country’s security forces are battling both drug smugglers and car thieves on the border and claims of a “shoot to kill” policy were false and unfair.

Cambodian officials in Banteay Meanchey, Battambang and Od­dar Meanchey provinces claim the handful of killings Hun Sen highlighted are only a fraction of those slain and maimed on the Thai border.

Last year, seven Cambodians were killed and 19 injured by Thai border guards and land mines on the Thai border in Banteay Meanchey province, said provincial Deputy Police Chief Soeung Sokhom.

Soeung Sokhom said he be­lieves that most of the Cambo­dians were innocent victims of Thai border patrols and that even the land mines were planted in recent years to discourage Cambodians from sneaking into Thailand.

That no investigations are undertaken into these incidents doesn’t help matters, he said.

“If [Thai] citizens were killed in Cambodia they would ask us to arrest the killers and send them to court…. We have never seen any arrests by Thai authorities, or court cases to try the people who killed Cambodians,” Soeung Sokhom said.

Among the cases Hun Sen pointed to last week was that of Pin Pak, 34, who was shot dead inside Thai territory on Feb 12.

Thai police reported he was attempting to steal motorcycles, said Nuth Ly, chief of police in Banteay Meanchey’s O’Chrou district.

Six days later, two men were killed and two beaten unconscious by Thai forces in separate incidents on the border in Banteay Meanchey and Battambang provinces, Hun Sen said.

Though the premier’s reports were supported by police officials in both provinces on Tuesday, no independent confirmation of the incidents can be made by either rights groups or other observers.

But complaints of Thai heavy-handedness were also voiced by Oddar Meanchey Provincial Police Chief Ath Khem.

Two Cambodian men were killed in 2002 on the border between Thailand and Oddar Meanchey—one shot by Thai forces and the second killed by a land mine boobytrap, Ath Khem said.

“We have tried to find justice for the victims’ families but the problem is the bodies are in Thailand and [Thai authorities] always turn the issue [to robbery or smuggling],” Ath Khem said.

“I don’t know what Thai law stipulates, but Cambodian immigration law says that if people cross the border illegally we just arrest and send back. There is no shooting,” Ath Khem said.

Cambodia’s main human rights organizations have little information on claims of killings on the border.

An official at the UN Center for Human Rights said information gathered on border incidents is usually passed on to local human rights groups

However, most of the incidents occur on Thai soil and Cambodian organizations have no jurisdiction to investigate, said Licadho founder Kek Galabru.

Thailand is currently investigating the border incidents, said a Thai official who denied Thai forces knowingly target Cambodian civilians.

“They don’t intend to kill the Cambodian people…. Along the border there are many robbers and drug traffickers. [Thai forces target] stolen cars, drug traffickers, not the people,” the official said.

However, with anti-Thai feeling running at an all-time high in Cambodia it will be difficult to convince Cambodians that Thai forces are not choosing quick jungle-justice over the courtroom.

“You kill and wound my people and do not say anything. I closed the border to prevent my people dying. So is it my fault?” Hun Sen said in his massively popular speech on national radio last week.

Thai Deputy Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh last week rejected Hun Sen’s claims that the killing of Cambodian citizens on the Thai border was the reason behind the frontier closure.

“If this is true, why have the Cambodians not protested since the very beginning of the incidents?” Chavalit asked.

A number of incidents far pre-date the Jan 29 riots.

In November, one Cambodian was killed and another injured as they hauled a stolen car across the border in Banteay Meanchey province.

Later that month, a second Cambodian was killed when he and eight other men and two women attempted to sneak into Thailand to allegedly find work. Thai officials said the group were trying to steal cars, a charge strongly denied by Banteay Meanchey officials.

In October, Thai police reported shooting five Cambodians dead among a group of 30 who they alleged were smuggling a stolen pick-up truck across the border.

The Thai officers said they killed the five in self-defense, claiming they were fired on first.

“[Incidents] happens frequently along the border,” confirmed Ny Chakrya, a Licadho investigator in Banteay Meanchey province. “[But we can] just make complaints to the border committee and the Thai Embassy,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Kevin Doyle)

Related Stories

Latest News

The Weekly DispatchA new weekly newsletter from The Cambodia Daily delivering news, analysis and opinion to your inbox. Published every Friday at 11:30am. Sign up today.