As morning traffic zipped past, Kheng Thida and three friends were walking down Sothearos Boulevard Wednesday talking about the clothes they would make that day in their sewing class.
Then there was a sharp bang and Kheng Thida dropped to the pavement.
“She just fell down. I didn’t know what happened,” said Meas Sophon, who was walking with Kheng Thida. “I tried to wake her up but she did not speak. Then blood came out of her head.”
Kheng Thida, 17, died on the side of the road, struck in the head by a bullet meant either for escaping thieves or feuding gang members.
As residents of Chomkar Mon district gathered around the dead girl, they were reminded that while the city is safer than it has been in years, guns and death are still a part of life in Phnom Penh.
Any of the four classmates could have been hit by the bullet. But Kheng Thida’s position at the back of the group as they walked single file on the pavement was the reason she died, Meas Sophon said.
Meas Sophon said she did not see who fired the shot.
Witnesses who saw the shooting said the shot came from a passenger on a motorcycle who seemed to be chasing two men on another motorcycle.
Municipal Police Chief Soun Chhengly said the bullet was probably fired by a gang member aiming for a rival. But police are also investigating claims the bullet may have been fired by one of their own officers trying to stop escaping suspects, Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara said.
While human rights workers have generally welcomed the government’s efforts to take weapons out of Cambodian society, some say too many guns still remain in the hands of criminals. Thun Saray, president of local human rights group Adhoc, recently urged that the weapons crackdown be more thoroughly reinforced with better police work and law enforcement procedures.
Police were still gathering details about the shooting Wednesday evening. What is know so far has come from bystanders.
Two speeding motorcycles had just passed the Russian Embassy on Sothearos Boulevard at about 8 am when the bullet was fired, said a motorbike taxi driver who requested anonymity.
The shooter, wearing civilian clothes, was aiming at the second motorcycle that was about 50 meters in front and traveling at high speed, the motortaxi driver said.
“The girl…died instantly,” he said. “I helped to pick her up body.”
Friends, schoolmates and relatives of the dead girl gathered at Wat Lanka Wednesday afternoon to pay their last respects before a cremation ceremony today.
“I’m so shocked I can’t even cry,” said Pok Sophea, the victim’s 40-year-old mother. She said police have not told her if they have suspects in the killing.
Kim Sovann, program coordinator for Street Children Assistance and Development Program, said Kheng Thida had been a student at their sewing classes for just over two months.
“She was a very gentle girl,” Kim Sovann said. “She was never absent from school.”