tuol prasat, Banteay Meanchey – Two hours after the small group passed through her village on their way to cross the Thai border, Mom Sochea saw a man run back from the kilometer-wide no man’s land that separates the two countries.
“From the way the small child hung limply in his arms, I knew something was wrong,” Mom Sochea said, recounting how she saw blood oozing from a neat hole in the 5-year-old’s forehead and the gaping exit wound at the back of his head.
Mom Sochea knew there was little that could be done. The boy, Chea Phall, died a short while later. Another victim, Ith An, 25, had also died in the hail of bullets that strafed the group of poor migrants seeking work in Thailand.
The July 3 incident was only the latest shooting on the porous 180-km stretch of border dividing Banteay Meanchey province and Sa Kaeo province in Thailand.
Thirteen Cambodian nationals were reported shot dead in this area in 2007, and a total of three so far this year, along with many more injuries. It is unknown how many Thais have died in violence on their side of this border territory.
Thai authorities generally attribute shootings on the border to disputes between criminal gangs, while Cambodian authorities tend to blame trigger-happy Thai border patrols for the shooting of unarmed civilians.
The only thing known for sure amid all the bloodshed in this border zone is that neither Thai nor Cambodian authorities have ever brought anyone to justice.
Residents of Tuol Prasat village in Poipet commune, O’Chrou district, where the July 3 shooting took place, were convinced this week that the killing of Chea Phall and Ith An was the work of the Thai military.
On Sunday, however, the Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh released a statement linking the shooting to a conflict between traffickers in the area.
Most Cambodians cross into Thailand at the Poipet international border crossing, and hundreds also cross daily at the nearby Prey Kop checkpoint. No one, however, knows quite how many desperately poor Cambodian migrants take their chances and try and slip into Thailand illegally by crossing the dangerous scrub brush forest at Tuol Prasat.
The group that Chea Phall and Ith An were part of had traveled all the way from Kompong Thom province, and the remaining four women, one child and five men who survived the July 3 attack have since returned home.
After the shooting, Tuol Prasat village chief Meang Sarin went with others to try and retrieve Ith Ann’s body, who lay where he died after being shot in the chest.
“Many people cross over and back at this point…with no problems, but now this seems to have changed,” Meang Sarin said Tuesday.
“All Ith An had in his pocket was a cell phone and a packet of cigarettes,” he said, discounting theories the group were “traffickers.”
According to villagers, the survivors of the July 3 attack said the shooter was wearing civilian clothes.
Nevertheless, a number of villagers in Tuol Prasat remained convinced that it was a member of the Thai military, only this time in disguise.
“The Thais want to come and take our land,” said Long Channak, 25. “We fight them off in Preah Vihear, so they try to take revenge on us here,” he said.
However, Keo Bora, police chief at the nearby Prey Kop checkpoint, where he has been stationed since 1997, dismissed any links between the Thai military and the July 3 shooting.
The killings were said to be most likely a revenge attack for the recent murder of a Thai villager, across the border in Thailand, which was blamed on Cambodian migrants.
“I believe the shooting is a revenge case for the murder of a Thai man across the border a few months ago, which was blamed on Cambodian migrants,” Keo Bora said.
“Why would the [Thai] military have done that?” he asked. “It would be easy for a relative of the dead Thai man to carry out this attack,” he said.
An investigation is being carried out on the Thai side, and Keo Bora said he was one of a group of Cambodian police officers who traveled across to check the scene of the shooting of Chea Phall and Ith An.
Relations between Thai and Cambodian border police are amicable, he said.
Other border officials are not so understanding.
“[The Thais] do not seem interested in conducting full investigations when Cambodians are killed,” said border police Major General Sok Pheap, who oversees the Koh Kong, Preah Vihear and Banteay Meanchey border checkpoints.
As chief of the Cambodia and Thailand Border Communications Office, Sok Pheap said Thai border police neglect to fully investigate cases involving Cambodians.
“We filed a complaint [after last week’s shooting] demanding they bring the killers to justice and pay compensation to the victims’ families,” he said, adding that he was not surprised that there was tension along the border.
“They are angry,” he said of Cambodian villagers living along the border. “But we are educating them not to take revenge on the Thais,” he said.
Banteay Meanchey provincial police chief Hun Hean said suspects are never apprehended when Cambodians are killed on the border.
“The victims are poor, but that should not mean they can be shot and no one brought to justice,” he said.
None of the survivors of the July 3 incident could be contacted this week.
Kong Savoeun, Kompong Thom province’s Stong district police chief, said the remains of the two victims were taken to their homes in Chamna Loeu commune where a funeral ceremony was held.
Poverty in the area forced many to migrate to Thailand for work, he said.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Sin Bunthoeun said Foreign Minister Hor Namhong has requested a full investigation into the case be carried out. The Foreign Affairs Ministry would not comment further until the investigation is completed, he said.
Contacted Thursday afternoon, a Thai Embassy official, who asked not to be named, retracted the embassy’s Sunday statement linking the slayings to trafficking.
“The purpose of the Sunday statement,” he said by telephone, “was to assure the Cambodian people that the Thai military were not involved in this incident.”
“The link to trafficking was only based on an initial assessment,” the official said, adding that Cambodia has been assured that a full investigation would be carried out as quickly and fully as possible.
“This will take some time, but there will be a full report,” he said.
Substandard investigations of such incidents are partly because of the failure of Cambodian authorities, said Tioulong Saumura, lawmaker and Banteay Meanchey first candidate for the SRP in the July 27 election.
“Thai authorities have little motivation to investigate properly the death of a non-national,” she said.
“It is up to our government to demand that they do so, and not just use [incidents like this one] as an opportunity to generate xenophobic rumors.”
“It is part of the Cambodian national interest to properly represent the interests of all its people, from the strongest to the weakest, at home and abroad,” Tioulong Saumura said.