Protest victims want answers

May Titthara / Khmer Times No Comments Share:
Khem Seourn sits at a table covered in photos and documents related to his son, who went missing three years ago during a protest. Supplied

Khem Seourn sat quietly next to a table covered in “missing child” fliers with his son’s face and a phone number at the top of each page.
 
As he prepared his son’s room for a gathering in Svay Rieng province to mark the third anniversary of the Veng Sreng street shootings in 2014, Mr. Seourn said the word “missing,” displayed above his son’s young face, was no longer an apt description of his situation.
 
After nearly three years of no answers and lackluster investigations, Mr. Seourn now knows his son is dead.
 
Khem Sophat, who was born in Svay Rieng province’s Ang Taso commune, was a 16-year-old garment worker who took part in the 2014 protests demanding a $160 minimum wage in Phnom Penh.
 
Hundreds of thousands of workers started demonstrating on Christmas Day, but the situation came to a head on January 3, 2014, when the government sent armed military police to Veng Sreng street, the epicenter of the protests and a road teeming with garment factories.
 
According to the government, four protesters were killed and more than 40 were injured when police opened fire on rioters. But human rights officials and workers who were there that day claimed that many more were killed, but their bodies were never found.
 
Mr. Sophat was one of those protesters never seen again.
 
“Today, I am preparing a small celebration in my child’s room.
 
“I don’t have anything to celebrate though. I would like the government to tell me who really shot and killed my son,” Mr. Seourn said.
 
Immediately after his son’s disappearance, Mr. Seourn traveled across the country looking for information on where his son might have been taken.
 
He was told by a friend that the bodies of some of the protesters shot that day were brought to a mountain in Kampong Speu province and burned.
 
“I went to that mountain, and I saw many tires that people say were  used to burn bodies. But I did not know which bones were my son’s,” he told Khmer Times.
 
“Some organizations said they would take it [the bones] to examine it, but we don’t know the results yet,” he said, failing to name them however.
 
He has exhausted all efforts to find his son, researching any leads into his whereabouts until it became clear that he would never come home. Even at their son’s funeral, both Mr. Seourn and his wife wondered if he was still alive.
 
“In the first year, my wife and I didn’t think my child was dead,” he said.
 
“When Khmer New Year and Pchum Ben festival came, and other children came to visit the village, I always thought my child would come. However, in the second and third year, I realized that my son was dead because his friend claimed that he saw him get shot in the chest and put in a car.
 
“From then on, I started to recognize that my son was dead.”
 
Despite coming to terms with his son’s untimely death, Mr. Seourn has refused to abandon his quest for justice, frequently coming to Phnom Penh to ask for more information from the Interior Ministry and international organizations.
 
“I have never given up on finding justice. I hope that someone can find justice for my son,” he said.
 
“If I cannot find my son’s bones, at least I can find the killer who shot my son. I can’t just ignore this and let my son die in this way.”  
 
Theng Saveourn survived the confrontation with the military at the protest which turned to a riot in 2014, but was still angry three years later at the officials and police, who almost beat him to death before arresting, charging and sentencing him for incitement to use violence to cause chaos.
 
He did not receive any medicine or treatment to deal with the injuries he received at the hands of police, yet was given a four-and-a-half year suspended sentence as well as an eight million riel fine (about $2,000).
 
He ended up spending six months in prison before being released, but said the events of January 3 play out in his mind on an almost daily basis.
 
“I still remember what they did. They kicked me, hit me and sent me to detention without any medicine. My life was like a living hell at the time,” he said.
 
“Until now, we have not received justice and we are still called ‘former prisoners’ because the charges are still on our record and the court refuses to drop them.”
 
More than 20 protesters were arrested in the aftermath of the violence, given lengthy sentences but then allowed to go free after six months on the condition that they not commit any other crimes.
 
Many are now stuck in a perpetual state of judicial limbo – free to walk the streets, but with guilty verdicts and lengthy sentences hanging over their heads.
 
Mr. Saveourn said he plans to take part in a celebration for those who died that day with other victims, monks and civil society groups, but told Khmer Times that organizers are afraid to hold the event on Veng Sreng street after last year’s attempt to commemorate the day was  stopped by military police in a scene eerily similar to the initial protests.
 
He lamented the government’s response to the shooting, but said he was heartened by the responses from every day Cambodians who saw videos of the protest and can identify with his frustration.
 
“We did not get justice from the court because it is a tool of the politicians, but we got justice from the court of public opinion because everyone knows and saw the unjust actions that were done to us,” he said.
 
The g o v e r n m e n t had allegedly attempted to reframe the story in the days and months after the shootings, telling the press that military officers were justified in shooting protesters because they were damaging property and throwing rocks. One police officer, they claimed, lost an eye because of the rocks thrown by protesters.
 
Last August, Prime Minister Hun Sen even ordered National Police Chief Neth Savoeun and Phnom Penh governor Pa Socheatvong to search for and arrest other protesters involved in the demonstration, ignoring pleas from victims and their families for any information into what happened that day.
 
The prime minister said the protests were an effort by the opposition to destabilize the country and praised police for their actions.
 
One day after Mr. Hun Sen’s announcement, five CNRP activists were arrested.
 
National deputy police chief Kirth Chantharith could not be reached for comment yesterday, but has previously talked about the need to preserve “safety and public order” when asked about the shooting.
 
Mr. Chantharith said police had made efforts to investigate and find missing protesters, but claimed the victims’ families were “not collaborating.”
 
“To date, the police both in Phnom Penh and Svay Rieng province have not received complaints from the family yet,” he said. “So as the national police, we request the victim’s family to cooperate and file a complaint so we have clues in the investigation to find the victim.”
 
Mr. Seourn disputed this statement, showing Khmer Times the dozens of complaints and reports he has filed with police seeking help and information. He said he has also spoken personally with Interior Ministry officials and given them documents as well.
 
Am Sam Ath, a senior coordinator at rights group Licadho, said the case showed the impunity of government officials and, specifically, the police. The fact that no police officers were ever charged – and that protesters who had been attacked by heavily armed police were charged – was indicative of the government’s belief, or lack of, in justice, he said.
 
“If the offenders are outside the law, violence will continue to occur. If we talk about justice for the victim’s family, it is very far away,” he told Khmer Times.
 
And after three years, Mr. Seourn is still waiting for justice. He commemorates his son’s disappearance and death each year by recreating his funeral, where all they had was one photo of their son because there was no body and they did not have many of his personal effects.
 
“I still have hope that one day justice will be there for my son because this evil is not immortal,” he said.

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