phum thmei village, Kandal province – Many of the men are gone from this small muddy fishing village, a collection of wooden homes and livestock pens on the banks of the Tonle Sap River.
Most have fled to Kompong Chhnang, though authorities think a few may have slipped into Vietnam. Those who remain believe police have compiled a list of 30 or 40 names, and that all are suspects in the deaths of three fisheries officials killed during a late-night brawl with fishermen on the river last week.
Officials say it is the first fatal attack by ethnic Vietnamese on government officials. Five fishermen were arrested, although two were later released. Three remain in custody although no formal arrest warrant has been issued.
The villagers say it is not clear what happened on that dark night, and that the officials drowned when a boat swamped during the fight. They believe nobody meant to kill anybody.
Police and local authorities blame the deaths on mob violence, but their explanations are colored by ethnic tension. The attack followed two months of ideological clashes between Cambodians and Vietnamese, particularly in Phnom Penh.
Tuesday, Phum Doung village chief Khiev Hun remarked, “I am heartbroken that the Vietnamese who live on Cambodian soil did such crimes.”
But others say that it is too easy to blame this event on long-standing ethnic hostility.
Instead, villagers point to another endemic Cambodian problem—corruption. They say that for months, officials have illegally confiscated boats and equipment, demanding bribes before they would return them.
Last week, the villagers say, they had had enough.
“The officials just wanted to get some money, that’s why they did this,” said one village elder, a 75-year-old man whose son is one of the three detained. His claim was echoed by officials with the Vietnamese Embassy and the Overseas Vietnamese Association who say they’ve been told the incident was the result of a “personal dispute.”
Villagers describe a pattern of bribe-taking aimed at most fishermen along this stretch of river, but with a special emphasis on the Vietnamese.
The village security chief, who didn’t want to give his name, said fishermen don’t mind paying a legitimate tax for permits to fish that part of the river.
The problem, he said, is that the officials come back for more. “Sometimes they take our boats and ask for [$25-$50]. It’s very difficult for us to get our things back. We give them some money but after awhile they ask again,” he said.
“People are so angry [about] this. People in the area did not just suddenly try to make difficulties for the authorities.”
Fisheries officials said they don’t buy that explanation. “That doesn’t sound reasonable,” Ly Kim Han, director of the country’s fisheries department, said Wednesday.
“They are just saying that to [justify] their actions,” he said.
The brawl occurred late on the night of April 9. Early the next morning, provincial police came to Phum Thmei as villagers there tried to sort out what had happened.
As the police arrived, several dozen fishermen quietly left the village. Those who remained stay close to home these days; the attack left villagers, human rights workers and Vietnamese Embassy officials fearing a violent backlash.
“For a very long time, the relationship between the villagers and officials—there was no problem,” said the security chief, sitting in the shade underneath his house.
“But after this single incident, nobody dares go to work. They are too scared. We’ve heard so many criticisms, people saying: ‘If you go to work you will be attacked by Cambodians from outside.’”
The fear is understandable. Provincial authorities say the fishermen brutally attacked six fisheries officials who were just doing their jobs, trying to confiscate illegal fishing equipment.
In a few angry and confused minutes shortly before midnight, three of the officials—Chea Sok, Kaev Kim Seung and Vann Sam Ath—were killed. The three who survived told police fishermen had attacked them.
The villagers cannot explain how the attack unfolded and are reluctant to place direct blame for the officials’ deaths on fellow fishermen—none of whom, they claim, are at the village now.
The security chief said the officials were wrong in taking the boats, but concedes that the fishermen were also at fault.
One woman described that night as being unusually dark. “[The fishermen] did not know they were officials. People were screaming a lot and just started to fight. They thought it was a robbery.”
Another admitted the fishermen beat the officials, but explained the government boat became swamped when several fishermen boarded it, trying to retrieve a confiscated boat motor.
“The boat sank and the [officials] drowned. There was no beating them,” he said, pausing, then correcting himself. “There was some fighting, but people really don’t know what happened. Nobody knows if they died by beating or drowning.”
Local Cambodian authorities are equally at a loss for an explanation but say the officials were under new orders to crack down on illegal fishing.
“If they did not do this they would be blamed for negligence,” said Pich Nom, chief of Preak Phnov commune where the attack occurred.
“We just wanted to seize their tools and fine them in accordance with the law….They knew those officials. Why did they kill them?”
No one in Phum Thmei can answer this question. When asked, they say that they were not involved.