Inside a rehabilitation centre in Phnom Penh’s Russey Keo district, Hoeun Chan is slowly and arduously training his arms to be stronger.
Each morning, he lifts his body from his bed into a new wheelchair, then grips his hands on its sides and pushes his weight up and down.
In time, he hopes this repetition will lead to improved strength and increased mobility. For now, occasional mishaps and overbalancing sometimes cause his wheelchair to roll over, sending him falling to the floor.
Chan, 27, has been paralysed from the waist down since being shot in the side by police near the SL Garment factory strike on the day it boiled over in the streets of the capital’s Meanchey district in November.
“After doctors in Cambodia said I was crippled for life, I felt utterly hopeless,” he told the Post at his temporary new home at the Kien Khleang Rehabilitation Centre yesterday. “At first, I did not want to live. All my life, I was looked after by mother and hoped that when I graduated from university, I could support her and give her a comfortable life. Instead, she has to take care of me like I am a child again.”
Feedback from doctors during a recent trip to Vietnam for treatment dashed Chan’s hopes – for now – of walking again.
“My hope in going to Vietnam was that I would be cured 100 per cent,” he said. “But they told me my feet cannot be cured like before.”
After spending a couple of dark and physically agonising weeks at home in Prey Veng province upon his return last month, Chan made the move to Phnom Penh, where he is focusing on his new life in a wheelchair.
“When I came home, I had no medicine. When the pain came, it was like my body was on fire. And blood was still seeping from my wounds.
“Seeing me in so much pain, my mother contacted rights group Licadho to be treated here. Now I’m learning a new way of life.”
For four hours each day, Chan goes through his strengthening exercises and practises wheeling around the rehabilitation centre.
Although this is helping him regain a much-needed sense of independence, Chan has put his university studies and employment on hold as he battles with basic bodily functions – since the shooting, he has been unable to control his bowel or bladder movements due to his paralysis.
“I live a life that is more difficult than dying,” he said. “I do not know when I urinate or defecate. When I touch my stomach and I feel that it is hard, I will go to the toilet to get some waste out. It is nothing like before.”
The toll the shooting has taken on Chan’s family has been immense.
His mother, Huon Khorn, 52, borrowed $4,000 – using her land title as collateral – to fund her son’s ultimately fruitless trip to Vietnam, she said yesterday.
“I tried to take him to Vietnam secretly without letting anyone, including any organisations, know. I’m afraid they will mistreat my son,” she said.
Seeing the fate that has befallen her Chan, so close to his graduation from Phnom Penh’s Human Resources University, has left Khorn a broken woman.
“The government has to be responsible for my son,” she said. “They should not have shot him – he was not protesting.”
That was a complaint voiced by others after the deadly November 12 clash, which resulted in bystander Eng Sokhom, a 49-year-old food vendor, being shot dead by police and protesters violently attacking police.
Only one of 38 people arrested over the clash was an employee of the SL Garment, and many bystanders told of being detained or attacked at random.
Police at the time accused those arrested of being “opportunists” who seized on the strike as an excuse to attack police, but the vast majority of them were soon released without charge. Actions of government forces were widely condemned.
Chan has received the help of private donors and NGOs since being shot, but Am Sam Ath, technical adviser for rights-group Licadho, said he worried that the 27-year-old would be forgotten in a society in which rights violations were still rife.
“These problems are an example of the culture of impunity that still exists,” he said. “Violence is still occurring and victims are not getting justice.”
A total of six civilians have been shot dead by government forces since September. Dozens of others have been injured, including some like Chan whose lives have been derailed.
Each shooting has sparked widespread criticism of the government, including calls for those responsible to be held accountable. That has yet to happen, despite the ruling Cambodian People’s Party saying investigations have taken place.
“We have not forgone this investigation,” military police spokesman Kheng Tito said yesterday. “We’re still working on this to know which side is responsible.”
Chan wants answers. His life, at this point, is limited to focusing on the basics. But he has the goal of living a full existence again – and carries a burning desire for justice. For now, those two things are inextricable in his mind.
“I want to continue my study,” he said. “When I have graduated, I will make money to pursue legal qualifications. I want to know about my case – why was I shot by the government but no one held responsible? How does this fit the definition of what is legal?”