Police on Wednesday denied any responsibility for the shooting death of a street food vendor after they fired live rounds during clashes with garment factory workers in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district on Tuesday, with a government spokesman saying the security forces can use “any means” to protect themselves and the “State.”
Eng Sokhom, 49, was serving food to customers when she was shot in the chest and killed during the clash between SL Garment Factory workers, civilians and riot police in Stung Meanchey district. The SL factory workers had attempted to march to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s house, but were prevented from doing so by police. Tensions escalated and rocks were thrown at the police, who responded initially with water cannons and then tear gas, rubber bullets and live rounds from automatic pistols.
Journalists and human rights monitors at the scene witnessed multiple police officers firing handguns in the direction of the stone-throwing protesters, while video footage and photographs of police armed with guns have circulated widely on social media. Nine other people were also injured, several with gunshot wounds.
“The police would like to deny the report that says police shot one woman to death,” National Police spokesman Lieutenant General Kirth Chantharith said.
“We do not know yet where that bullet was fired from, because the death was not inside the area of police operation,” he claimed.
The spokesman did admit that “police really did fire guns,” but he somehow maintained that those bullets did not go beyond an invisible “police operation” boundary.
Police would conduct their own investigation into the shooting of civilians, he said.
“[Phnom Penh municipal police chief] Chuon Sovann told me that the National Police will lead an investigation team,” Lt. Gen. Chantharith said.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said the slain woman, Eng Sokhom, was collateral damage.
“It was a wrong place at the wrong time [for Eng Sokhom],” Mr. Siphan said.
“Some protesters were nonviolent and others are troublemakers. If they show violence against the authorities, it’s against State power. They use all kinds of traditional weaponry like slingshots, rocks and sticks and iron balls,” he said.
“When we see…opportunists who try to damage State property, the State has the right to protect the life of State power,” Mr. Siphan said.
Asked if the government endorses the use of bullets against protesters, he replied: “It depends on the situation.”
“If the police feel a threat against their life, they have a responsibility…to protect State power as well as their own lives.”
“The policemen have no intention to kill anyone…. But most are proportionally trying to protect the rule of law and their own lives. All the people who were killed, were killed accidentally. That’s why you see in the [National Police] statement they say they are sorry.”
Human rights advocates said Wednesday that any investigation conducted by the National Police would result in impunity, as has happened so often in the past.
Asked about the progress of the National Police investigation into another lethal shooting of a bystander during a clash between police and protesters on Monivong Bridge in September, Lt. Gen. Chantharith, said he had no update.
The victim, Mao Sok Chan, 29, was shot dead at the Kbal Thnal overpass in Phnom Penh on September 15 after police opened fire on stone-throwing youths, who were angered by road closures and long traffic jams after a day of opposition protests in Phnom Penh.
“I did not check the progress” on the Monivong Bridge shooting, Lt. Gen. Chantharith said.
Two teenagers allegedly involved in the clash in Stung Meanchey on Tuesday were on Wednesday taken to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court after being held overnight at the municipal police headquarters, rights workers and deputy municipal police chief Chuon Narin said.
“Two men have been sent to the court, because they are alleged to have destroyed public property and beat police up with stones,” Mr. Narin said, referring to the suspects, Meas Non, 15, and Vany Vannorn, 19.
Of the 38 people arrested during the clashes on Tuesday, seven monks were released later that day and 29 other people were released Wednesday.
Asked about the shooting of civilians by his police officers on Tuesday, Mr. Narin responded: “Now I ask you, have you seen clearly police shot people and them die instantly at the site?”
A Cambodia Daily journalist witnessed a police officer shoot Hoeun Chan, 20, at close range in the stomach for no apparent reason inside the grounds of Stung Meanchey pagoda. The reporter then took the stricken student to the Khmer-Soviet Friendship hospital where a bullet was later removed from the young man’s spleen.
Naly Pilorge, director of local rights group Licadho, on Wednesday called for an independent investigation of the shooting.
“There needs to be an independent investigation, but we also need to look at the responsibility of the factory management—why aren’t they assessing the complaints of workers?” Ms. Pilorge asked.
“All NGOs are demanding an investigation, because there has been example after example when there are clashes and only people unarmed…are the ones being taken to court, punished and arrested,” she said.
In addition to Tuesday’s violence, Ms. Pilorge also cited the killing of Mao Sok Chan near Monivong Bridge, and the September 22 attack by pro-government thugs on a peaceful vigil at Wat Phnom—during which police stood by and watched—as two of the most recent examples of impunity.
“There has never been a case, in those three examples, of police being reprimanded for their violence and in the case of September 15 and [Mao Sok Chan’s killing] yesterday, are deaths that have never been accounted for.”
Video footage released by Licadho late Wednesday clearly shows a number of police officials raising and firing pistols toward the protestors, as well as kicking and beating unarmed monks with batons. Another scene depicts one official telling a student that he will kill him and dump his body.
Rupert Abbott, researcher for Amnesty International in Cambodia, said Tuesday’s event indicated that a common theme is emerging when it comes to how the authorities handle demonstrations and the fallout when they end in tragedy.
“[I]n recent weeks and months, we’ve seen a number of examples of security forces using excessive force against protesters and then following that, it seems, investigation is rare and those responsible are seldom held to account,” Mr. Abbott said.
“There is a real danger of ongoing impunity, and it fuels a vicious cycle,” he added.
Among other cases, no one has ever been held responsible for the shooting death of 14-year-old Heng Chantha, who was killed when security forces descended on Broma village in Kratie province in 2012 to carry out a mass eviction.
In addition, former Bavet City Governor Chhouk Bundith continues to evade justice after being found guilty of shooting into a crowd of garment workers, injuring three women.
Despite being handed an 18-month prison sentence he remains at large, protected by powerful friends in the government, rights workers say.
The SL Garment Factory at the center of the latest incident produces clothes for Gap and H&M.
Laura Wilkinson, a spokesperson for Gap Inc., said in a statement that the company was “very concerned” after learning about the latest violence.
“We and other brands have asked the United Nation’s International Labor Organization’s Better Factories Cambodia and the Cambodian Arbitration Council to intervene. We continue to urge all parties to peacefully negotiate. We have also contacted SL management to urge management to address worker concerns immediately.”
(Additional reporting by Khuon Narim and Mech Dara)