Three thousand riot police officers yesterday received certificates of appreciation for their post-election work, which included “controlling the escalation” at the Kbal Thnal overpass last month, where one man was killed and at least nine injured by police who fired live ammunition at unarmed rioters.
Interior Minister Sar Kheng, who is currently acting prime minister while the premier is abroad, held a ceremony for the officers yesterday to commend them for their “patience” during the incident.
“We can control the escalation of the demonstration to minimise the number of deaths and injuries among both the police and the protesters. A similar demonstration in other countries would be difficult to keep under control, and I am appreciative of your strong patience,” Kheng told the officers, who gathered at the Ministry of Interior yesterday morning.
“There was one death and numerous wounded among both the police and protesters, and we regret the incident.… On behalf of Samdech Techo, the prime minister, I am particularly appreciative of the police who successfully fulfilled their obligations.”
On September 15, the first night of the opposition party’s three-day mass demonstration, a clash broke out between police blockading the heavily trafficked overpass and irate residents returning home. Thousands of armed riot police were rapidly deployed to the sky bridge, where they used electric prods and gas canisters to fight back those lobbing rocks and pushing back barricades.
On numerous occasions, police officers opened fire – killing at least one man in the process and wounding a number of others.
Six civilians were arrested following the incident and charged with intentional violence and damage to public property. A promised internal investigation by the authorities appears yet to be launched. Rights organisations have denounced the arrests and said that there is nothing to link the six people to the violence.
National Police spokesman Kirth Chantharith declined to comment on the progress of the investigation, saying only that it was under the purview of the municipal police chief.
“I have not yet contacted him for an updated result, because I am very busy,” he said.
Phnom Penh police chief Choun Sovann could not be reached for comment.
If an investigation has gone forward, it has done so without much input from the family of the victim, Mao Sok Chan.
“I only know that the police say they have investigated the case, but there is still silence,” Sok Chan’s brother, Pey Pov, said.
“For my family, we only want to see the police find out who shot my brother and bring justice for us.”
But more than three weeks after the incident, officials appear more keen to shift blame than pursue the perpetrators.
Delivering a report of the incident ahead of Kheng’s speech, deputy secretary general of the National Police General Mao Chandara said the CNRP had created a “dark” political environment leading to an unstable society.
Following the thread, Kheng also blamed anarchic protesters and then blasted the United Nations for not acting in concert with police in the removal of Sok Chan’s body.
Shortly after midnight on September 16, police tried to take away the body of Sok Chan – nearly inciting another riot in the process. Residents allowed his corpse to be removed only after the UN’s OHCHR intervened and took the body in its own vehicle and drove it to the hospital.
But Kheng yesterday accused the United Nations of failing to cooperate with police officers.
“We don’t know about the intention of the UN human rights office in attempting to transport the dead body and hide it from us.”
UN officials could not be reached for comment.
Opposition lawmaker Mu Sochua called the condemnations an about-face from the early post-election promises made by Kheng.
“The violation of human rights committed by the police and military police should be condoned? He is in charge, he must be accountable. The investigation has to be independent, transparent,” Sochua said.
“I am extremely shocked by this lack of responsibility to the whole nation. What happened on the bridge was a tragedy. What does Sar Kheng have to say to the children of the man who was killed?”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY ABBY SEIFF