TROEUY KOH COMMUNE, Kampot province – Police here say they have opened an investigation into the death of a man at sea on Sunday that was initially written off as an accident but that locals are convinced was a murder.
Ey Youb, 42, died less than a kilometer from the coast after he and his cousin, piloting their 15-meter fishing boat, collided with a Vietnamese trawler twice the size.
On Monday, police said the fisherman was killed on impact after falling to the water from his boat. But Nos Youb, the victim’s crewman for eight years, said his cousin was ruthlessly murdered in the latest round of a maritime battle between local fishermen and their Vietnamese counterparts, who are poaching in Cambodian waters with impunity.
“After the collision, the Vietnamese fishermen pulled Ey Youb out of the water and attacked his face, his chest and back with steel bars,” Mr. Youb said in an interview at his home Tuesday, as women plucked chickens and chopped vegetables for a funeral ceremony.
“After the attack, they threw him back into the sea and told us by walkie-talkie: ‘You can come and get him now. We have killed him,’” he said, adding that six or seven Vietnamese men carried out the attack.
“They shone a giant floodlight on his floating body, so we went and picked him up, but he was already dead.”
Ey Youb was buried in his village on Monday, leaving behind his wife and two children.
Police reported on Monday that a group of about 30 Cambodian fishing boats had initiated the conflict when they surrounded two Vietnamese trawlers in an attempt to stop them from operating in the area.
But Mr. Youb said that he and his cousin had been alone until after the fatal beating, and that the Vietnamese men told them that calling authorities would be fruitless.
“After they threw Ey Youb in the sea, I yelled a threat: ‘The navy will come for you,’” he said. “They yelled back: ‘If the navy is coming, we will know before you.’”
All through Troeuy Koh, fishermen told of the ongoing battle to keep the waters off the coast of Kampot free of Vietnamese trawlers, which not only scoop up huge quantities of sea life but destroy the seabed. Trawling is illegal under Cambodian law.
In May last year, men from the fishing village on the bank of the Kampot river encircled two of the Vietnamese trawlers. They apprehended 13 crew members and handed them over to police, only to see them set free on the orders of the provincial governor, who said the two countries had an agreement to allow fishermen from both sides to fish on either side of what remains a poorly enforced maritime border.
Neak Sen, the 48-year-old chief of Troeuy Koh commune, said Tuesday that the death of Ey Youb was just the latest episode in a long history of skirmishes with Vietnamese fishermen, and that he had lost hope in the intervention of Cambodian authorities.
“Since 2006, there have been five cases of them sinking our boats. They regularly damage our boats by ramming them, and one of our fishermen lost his eye when they attacked with slingshots,“ he said, showing scars on his own chest that he said were the result of such attacks.
“Those Vietnamese fishermen drag nets about 500 meters long between two boats. They take all the seafood and we can’t go inside that area without being attacked,” Mr. Sen said. “If we use those giant trawling nets, we would be arrested. But the Vietnamese, they are allowed.”
When told that police had written off the death of Ey Youb as an accident, Mr. Sen grew livid.
“We saw the body,” he said. “They used a steel bar to stab holes in his chest. His face looked like it had been smashed with a shovel. His throat was smashed until he no longer had an Adam’s apple and there were wounds on his arms where he had tried to block the blows.”
At the Kampot City police station, where the fishermen said they filed their murder complaint, a number of officials on Tuesday declined to be identified or to comment.
One officer, Kol Narum, said a complaint was never lodged.
At the provincial police headquarters, deputy provincial police chief Mao Chanmathurith—who on Monday said Ey Youb was killed on impact with the water—on Tuesday claimed there was little scope for an investigation.
“Only the boat driver knows what happened,” he said, referring to Mr. Youb.
Mr. Chanmathurith said he would proceed when he received a photograph of the body, which he had requested from city police.
“I will do my best with this investigation,” he said.
As for claims that Vietnamese fishermen plied Cambodian waters with impunity, he said he had “no idea about that.”
“You have to talk to the governor of Kampot [province] or the fisheries department because I am just in charge of the [judicial police].”
Kuch Virak, deputy chief of the Fisheries Administration’s Kep and Kampot cantonment, declined to comment.
Provincial governor Khoy Khun Hour—who on Monday said that Cambodia and Vietnam had an agreement to share the waters off the coast of the two provinces—on Tuesday clarified that the agreement was not formal.
“We have no deal to share the sea. We just go to sell seafood in their area [Phu Quoc island] and they come into our area—this is normal.”
The governor reiterated his stance that the death of Ey Youb was “not intentional killing” and said local authorities had no jurisdiction to take action against Vietnamese fishermen who are trawling.
“Our law does not allow Khmer fishermen to use the two big boats with the net in the middle, but we don’t have a law to arrest other nationalities,” he said.
“They are free in their country, so they are free to do it here.”