Shooting in Service of the State—Order vs Law

From police officials to a government spokesman, the message was clear last week: The shooting dead of Eng Sokhom, a 49-year-old food vendor, and the injuring of nine others during violent clashes in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district was in the service of protecting the state.

Police have denied responsibility for shooting the street food vendor dead.

–News Analysis

But the casualties caused by police bullets during the violent garment factory protest have raised questions about state-sanctioned killing, and who bears responsibility for the slaying of innocent civilians.

“If they show violence against authorities, it’s against state power,” Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said last week, referring to those who police shot at in Meanchey district.

“When we see…opportunists who try to damage state property, the state has the right to protect the life of state power,” he said.

Along with the late Eng Sokhom, another of the victims of last week’s exercise in deadly statecraft was 26-year-old student Hoeurn Chann, who was randomly shot in the spine without apparent reason by an indignant police officer who had just been freed from a hostage situation by human rights workers.

“This is what the ruling party has always done to maintain its power,” said Moeun Tola, head of the labor program at the Community Legal Education Center.

Police officers sent to protests feel little inhibition against opening fire on demonstrators because their orders are to maintain state control at all costs.

“They show they will shoot, and the message to the protesters is to not go to the streets, otherwise they could face these same consequences.”

Wan-Hea Lee, the representative of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cambodia, said that she could not comment on whether direct orders to shoot unarmed protesters were deliberately sent to officers in the lower ranks.

But Ms. Lee said that the absence of any serious investigation into Eng Sokhom’s killing could lead to conclusions that her fatal shooting, and others, were state sanctioned.

“[A] lack of serious treatment of crimes and failure to punish the guilty parties always carries the risk of such a message being read this way. This is the danger of impunity,” Ms. Lee said.

A spokesperson for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva last week called for an urgent investigation to establish accountability for the use of lethal force by Cambodian security forces in light of the Meanchey district shootings.

Political analyst Kem Ley said that if there was no serious investigation into the police killing of Eng Sokhom, it would not be the first time that such a crime has been ignored.

“It’s happened several times in the past: in 1997, 1998, in 2000, and many times until now—many people have been shot by armed forces and this government of Cambodia always rejects the responsibility,” he said.

Mr. Ley pointed specifically to Mao Sok Chan, 29, whose slaying near Monivong Bridge on the first night of the opposition CNRP’s mass demonstration in September came at the hand of government security forces who began shooting at stone-throwing youths angry at a government roadblock.

A group of Canadian lawyers said last week that the slaying of Eng Sokhom on November 12 bore an “alarming resemblance” to the slaying of Mao Sok Chan, who was also a bystander of police efforts to respond to stone throwing crowds.

Mr. Ley said sanctioned use of such lethal force by the police was made clear not only through the government’s lax response to Eng Sokhom’s death, but in contrast to its peaceful handling of other, larger rallies in the past.

He said that the CNRP’s three days of citywide marching last month, during which police kept their distance and the event peaceful on the direct orders of Interior Minister Sar Kheng, showed the level of control the government maintains over members of the armed forces.

“Everything is under the government’s tight control: the police, the military police, and the direction they go [in handling protests]. It’s their responsibility,” Mr. Ley said.

Mr. Ley added that if the government was adamant that the fatal shooting at the Meanchey district protest was not state-sanctioned, it should launch a transparent investigation and prosecute those responsible.

“The government must take the responsible police to court if they want to deny responsibility for this, otherwise…they are responsible for it,” Mr. Ley said.

Under Article 51 on the Common Statute of Civil Servants, the prosecution of civil servants can only be undertaken with the express consent of the Council of Ministers.

Hy Pru, deputy chief of municipal police, who is leading an investigation into the shooting death of Eng Sokhom, declined to comment on the progress of his investigation Wednesday.

CNRP chief whip Son Chhay said the willingness of police officers to shoot at civilians to maintain control stems from a political culture carried over from the country’s Communist past.

Police understand well that their role in protecting the state’s control trumps all other concerns, he said.

“This government is derived from the former Communist Party of this country and it is still the same one-party system where everything must come under one organization,” he said, citing police as the frontline of efforts to maintain state control.

“They treat people as they like. There is no public service in this nation, there is only party servants who are here to control people and they feel they have a license to kill people.”

When the ruling CPP’s power and control is threatened, violence is a natural defense mechanism, said Simon Springer, an academic at the University of Victoria in Canada who has studied the political development of Cambodia over the past decade.

“This officer [who killed Eng Sokhom] is not the actual author of this violence, he was simply a character in a much larger story…that accepts violence as a mode of being, as the price of doing business,” Mr. Springer said.

“Violence is quite literally ‘business’ as usual, and right now, sadly, business is good in Cambodia.”

Sok Sam Oeun, a prominent legal aid lawyer who ran a U.N. police training school in refugee camps along the Thai border in the 1980s, said police in Cambodia simply act like a military force, a security apparatus whose very purpose is to kill and defend the state.

“Police in Cambodia do not receive adequate training and the training they get is copied from the military and military police,” Mr. Sam Oeun said, explaining that military training prioritizes the virtues of discipline and rank above all else.

“In military training, the soldiers are taught to obey orders—they do not balance law with order.”

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