As heavily armed military police advanced down Veng Sreng Boulevard at the Canadia Industrial Park early in the afternoon on Friday, January 3, Norm Sinath cautiously raised his hands. Although the green cross on his vest clearly indicated that he was a medic, Sinath was taking no chances. Moments before, the same policemen had fired a volley of automatic rifle shots above the heads of demonstrators who had failed to clear the site.
“Don’t run away,” Sinath advised those around him as the police marched forward about 10 metres away. “If we run, they’ll think we’re protesters.”
Around four hours earlier, at least four demonstrators had been killed and dozens injured when supporters of the garment strike clashed with authorities in the capital’s Por Sen Chey district.
Although the military police passed Sinath without incident, it was yet another tense moment. Earlier that day, a military policeman mistook him for a protester and shouted for his colleagues to attack. Another, recognising Sinath as a medic, intervened and warned the 37-year-old volunteer to be careful.
“He said: ‘Please take care of your life, because the bullets [have] no eyes’,” Sinath related in an interview on Monday near Freedom Park, where the team had assisted patients during last weekend’s eviction of the protest camp.
Sinath is a founding member of the Independent Voluntary First Aid Team (IVFAT), a group of 30 amateur medics which formed last September in response to the Kingdom’s post-election demonstrations. They are mostly Phnom Penh university students in their early to mid twenties with training in first aid.
The group’s founders said that it was the first locally run all volunteer first aid response team in the Kingdom. While some NGOs include medical assistance in their programmes, Sinath said IVFAT aimed to provide a general first responders’ service anywhere it was needed in the city with no strings attached.
Their current emphasis is to provide medical help to anyone in need at demonstrations and clashes, to which they said professional medics are slow to respond.
The group is committed to political neutrality and aids both protesters and authorities. Co-founder Chhoun Pheak estimated the team had helped about 10,000 people suffering minor issues, such as fainting and nausea, and about 100 more seriously sick or injured patients with complaints ranging from seizures to gunshot wounds. Given the volunteers’ lack of expertise, the most they can do for seriously injured patients is to get them to hospital as safely as possible.
Unusually, the opposition and government have found common ground in their approval of IVFAT, with representatives from both sides appreciating the team’s efforts.
Brigadier General Kheng Tito, spokesman for the military police, praised the group’s presence at demonstrations and clashes in an email interview.
“They are a good volunteer team. They are always welcome and [we] give protection to them.”
Cambodia National Rescue Party lawmaker-elect Mu Sochua, who has met with the team to coordinate the transfer of patients from Freedom Park to hospital, praised the team’s impartiality.
“The volunteers are very dedicated, committed and focused on their mission. They did not let politics determine their agenda,” Sochua said.
But despite their commitment to neutrality, Pheak said that individual policemen and soldiers often viewed them as pro-opposition. Some had been polite but others had been rude and threatened violence, according to the medic.
“Even the general population may not consider us independent because we mostly work at demonstrations, and after the election, most demonstrations are organised by the opposition party, so it sounds like we are fans of the opposition party, but actually we are not,” he said.
Volunteers, who mostly come out on their days off from school, operate with minimal training or resources. Pheak, a former nurse who recently returned from Australia with a master’s degree in public health, provides a day’s first aid training for recruits when they begin. But IVFAT has no formal budget, with money coming sporadically from Pheak’s friends in Australia and volunteers’ pockets.
Hong Lida, a 24-year-old political science student at Khemarak University, was the only IVFAT volunteer on Veng Sreng Boulevard to witness the shootings on January 3. After hiding behind a street corner to avoid being shot, he said that he rushed to find the victims once the gunfire stopped.
“We only were able to help the ones with slight wounds by clearing their wounds and bandaging them to stop the bleeding,” said Lida, adding that they helped at least 10 injured protesters and military police.
When asked if he was afraid, Lida said that he had to swallow his fear to uphold his principles.
“I was very shocked and scared, but I needed to risk my life out there. There was no choice,” said Lida, adding that he would go to other shootings to help victims.
“It’s our work to help people, so we’ll continue this work and try to help injured people as much as we can.”
The question of whether more violence will occur was on the minds of all IVFAT volunteers on Monday. While acknowledging the possibility that things would take a turn for the better, Sinath predicts more trouble in the near future as resentment grows over the deaths at Veng Sreng Boulevard.
“[People] are very angry at the government that they kill our factory workers . . .
The protesters don’t care about their own lives, and they will continue to claim their rights.”