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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - A family’s anguish

The older sister of Khim Saphath holds a picture of her brother
The older sister of Khim Saphath holds a picture of her brother yesterday. Saphath has been missing since the January 3 government crackdown on garment protesters on Veng Sreng Boulevard. Hong Menea

A family’s anguish

It's been a week since Khim Saphath’s family held a funeral for their missing son, last seen with blood pouring from his chest during clashes between striking garment workers and authorities on January 3.

Without a body to place in a casket, framed photos had to suffice as a physical reminder of a baby-faced 16-year-old who lied about his age to work at a Chinese-owned garment factory for $8 a day.

But although they say they have accepted the worst, Saphath’s doting parents haven’t stopped looking for him.

“I look for my son at pagodas, hospitals and clinics. Wherever we go, we ask people about him, but we have found nothing,” Saphath’s father, Khim Souern, 41, said yesterday outside the sparse rental room that the youngster shared with his older sister, a few hundred metres away from the factory where he worked. “We just want to know what happened to him, if he survived or died. If he is dead, we need to see his corpse.”

Turning up to work that Friday morning, Saphath had found the factory shuttered and followed his fellow workers to Veng Sreng Boulevard, where hundreds were caught in clashes with military police.

His friend and co-worker, 18-year-old Srey Ry, said other protesters were throwing rocks at soldiers when security forces opened fire with live ammunition.

“I ran for my life and jumped to the ground, and when I got up, I was shot in the arm. My neighbour helped me get out of the scene to our rented room or else I would have been taken away by the soldiers like Chrouk was,” Ry told the Post from hospital yesterday, using Saphath’s nickname, meaning pig.

“Chrouk was about 30 metres from me. I did not see him getting shot with my own eyes. I just saw him lying on the ground with a serious wound to his chest. Blood was coming out. A neighbour tried to get him away but more and more blood was coming out and he asked him to leave him there.”

Ry said that others told him Saphath was taken away on a military police truck, but this could not be corroborated with eyewitnesses. Still, the story of a possible arrest gave the family hope that Saphath would be one of 23 protesters secretly detained at CC3 prison in Kampong Cham. But when rights groups were finally given access on Wednesday, they said he wasn’t among the arrestees.

“We’ve all been looking for him, and he hasn’t appeared yet, so we now have asked the family if they want to do an announcement on the radio,” Naly Pilorge, director at Licadho, said.

Chan Soveth, an investigator at Adhoc whom the family filed a complaint with on Monday, said he was calling on the government to investigate the case.

“His body has not been found, so he [can be considered] missing. [But] we can say that we are 99 per cent sure he has not survived, so he was put onto our list of dead [numbering five from the protests],” Soveth said.

Licadho has not added Saphath to its confirmed list of four dead from the crackdown and is still treating him as a missing person, although he was not at CC3 or one of the 39 injured the group has spoken to, Pilorge said.

The opposition party’s list of six dead also does not contain Saphath’s name nor the fake name he used to secure work at the factory – Ang Chanthoeurn.

Mok Chito, chief of the Ministry of Interior’s central justice department, said yesterday cases of missing people taken away by the military and military police were just rumours, emanating in particular from the opposition party.

“We do not know whether it is true or not. They just said that, mainly the opposition party,” he said, asking the parents of those missing to file a complaint with police.

“We will find the missing persons for them if they lodge a complaint with our police. Do not just say it.”

Saphath’s family say they are too scared to ask the authorities for information and will continue to search for their son, despite acknowledging he is likely dead.

“I don’t have hope to find him alive. He’s disappeared without a trace,” Souern said, his vacant eyes staring down, his head resting on one hand.

“I am still continuing to look for him.”

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