PECH CHREADA DISTRICT, Mondolkiri province – A soldier who wounded an ethnic Bunong man with shrapnel thrown up by a shot from his assault rifle has not returned to the rubber plantation where he works as a guard and will be punished according to the law, the district governor told a group of angry locals Wednesday.
On Monday, provincial police chief Nhem Vanny had said the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces soldier, who has not been identified, had returned to work at Khmer Rubber’s 8,000-hectare plantation after fleeing the scene and would not be punished because the victim, 28-year-old Tek Ngiem, had suffered only minor injuries.
On Wednesday, however, Pech Chreada district Governor Nguon Saran said the police chief’s account was wrong.
“I wish to deny that the shooter has returned to the company. The court has issued a warrant to arrest him,” Mr. Saran told reporters as the nearly 200 Bunong villagers gathered at the district offices to demand justice for Mr. Ngiem, just one among a host of grievances.
“We will not allow this individual to escape the net of the law,” the district governor said.
On September 6, Mr. Ngiem had been checking animal traps in the forest with a group of fellow villagers when they ran into a group of armed guards who ordered them to turn back. One of the guards then fired his AK-47 into the ground, sending shrapnel into Mr. Ngiem’s side.
Mr. Ngiem was allegedly refused an operation at the Mondolkiri provincial hospital, prompting rights group Adhoc to transport him to Phnom Penh, where he says doctors removed three fragments from his torso but refused to say whether the pieces were rock or bullet.
Contacted Wednesday, provincial Governor Eng Bunheang said Mr. Ngiem was refused treatment in Mondolkiri simply because he didn’t need it.
“Medical staff told me that it was not a serious injury,” he said.
Mr. Bunheang said Adhoc had exaggerated the extent of Mr. Ngiem’s injury to draw attention to the plight of the Bunong, whose ancestral lands are being encroached upon by economic and social land concessions.
“[Mr. Ngiem] tried to force medical staff at the provincial hospital to operate but they refused because there was nothing that needed to be removed from his leg,” he said.
Mr. Bunheang also said that he did not know if an arrest warrant had been issued for the shooter and that he had instructed his authorities to investigate the case further.
Upon Mr. Ngiem’s arrival in Phnom Penh last week, Adhoc presented him to the media at a press conference, where the group lambasted Khmer Rubber for its treatment of the Bunong.
Sok Ratha, the provincial coordinator for Adhoc who accompanied Mr. Ngiem to Phnom Penh, said that the governor’s accusations against his NGO were unfounded.
“We did not bring him to Phnom Penh to create a big problem,” Mr. Ratha said by telephone Wednesday. “We brought him to Phnom Penh following the request of the victim, because he had gone untreated for three or four days.
“After the operation, we [he and Mr. Ngiem] did not see the fragments with our eyes, but a doctor told us that three pieces of rock in his hip were removed,” he said, adding that the Bunong man received three stitches.
Mr. Ngiem returned home to Bosra commune Wednesday.
Inside the family’s house, his father, Sroeunh Tek, 55, said Adhoc, and not his son, had suggested the trip to Phnom Penh.
“I allowed my son to go to Phnom Penh with Adhoc because they told me he should go there for an operation,” he said.
As for the fragments removed from his son’s side, Mr. Tek said: “I asked Sok Ratha…. He told me that there is no need to know, rock or bullet, and that he will keep them in his hands.”