Survivors of a deadly attack against Cambodian fisheries officials by fishermen last week say there was nothing unusual about their night-time confiscation of illegal fishing equipment.
Questions have been raised as to why the six officials were working at night without an armed police escort when they were attacked by a group of about 25 fishermen.
Three officials died during the attack, which survivors and officials say was carried out by ethnic-Vietnamese fisherman. Authorities say the attack began as they tried to tow three fishing boats full of illegal equipment back to a government fisheries office in Kandal province, about 10 km from Phnom Penh.
The officials were set upon by the large group of club-wielding fishermen as they passed the fishing village of Phum Thmei, a short distance downstream from where the boats were seized. Phum Thmei is populated by ethnic Vietnamese.
According to Agriculture Minister Chhea Song, officials typically patrol local waterways at night, when fishermen are more likely to be using illegal equipment—most often nets stretching the entire width of a river.
It is unknown how widespread illegal fishing is locally, but officials have said it is not uncommon. And because the officials only found a group of about five fishermen using the nets on the night of April 10, they did not call for police backup—feeling they could handle the situation by themselves, Chhea Song and survivor Chhum Rithy said.
“The fishermen were not that many,” Chhea Song said by telephone Sunday. “If it is a [big illegal fishing operation] they will call for police intervention.”
Chhea Song said he will issue an order requiring a police escort on future patrols.
Three fishermen were arrested last week in connection with the incident and are being held in Kandal province. Two more were detained for questioning, though provincial police chief Ek Kreth said they have been released. Penal police chief Chhon Sarom said there will likely be more arrests made.
Licadho founder Kek Galabru said her organization will begin investigating the fishermen incident today. Other rights groups, fearing a possible violent backlash against ethnic Vietnamese, have also looked into the matter, though there were no reports of violence over the weekend.
The incident occurred at a time of rising tensions between the two groups, following two high-profile cases of aggression by Cambodians towards ethnic Vietnamese living here.
Nearly 200 hundred demonstrators marched through Phnom Penh last month demanding that Vietnamese families squatting in a city pagoda be thrown out after allegedly attacking monks there. Earlier this month the local rights group Licadho was attacked in the Khmer press for its involvement in rescuing Vietnamese garment workers from a local garment factory where the workers were allegedly being held against their will.