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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Protester injured at rally dies

Protesters gather at a burning makeshift roadblock on Phnom Penh’s Veng Sreng Boulevard during clashes with police that turned deadly in early January
Protesters gather at a burning makeshift roadblock on Phnom Penh’s Veng Sreng Boulevard during clashes with police that turned deadly in early January. Pha Lina

Protester injured at rally dies

Before dawn on Saturday, family members of Moun Sokmean found him distressed and incoherent.

Over the past several months, Sokmean, who was left blind in one eye after being beaten by authorities during a January 3 garment sector protest, had complained of headaches and other ailments. But this time was different.

His father, Luch Pouy, and a cousin put the 29-year-old on a motorbike and rushed him to a doctor. When they arrived at Visal Sok clinic in the capital’s Chamkarmon district at 3:15am, it was too late, Pouy said. Sokmean had died on the way there.

“I took him by my motorbike to a private clinic, but when we reached the clinic, the doctor said he had already passed away,” Pouy said yesterday.

Sokmean’s family say his death is the result of the vicious assault by authorities, though a lack of proper medical care in the aftermath may have also lessened his chances of survival.

His father said Sokmean attended the January 3 protest on Veng Sreng Boulevard. Like many other protesters, he worked at a garment factory on Veng Sreng, one of several inside Canadia Industrial Park. The demonstration, part of a nationwide strike aimed at prodding the government to raise the minimum wage to $160, spiralled out of control.

Workers hurled rocks and Molotov cocktails, and military police responded with beatings and gunfire, killing at least four people.

Twenty-three people were arrested on that day and on January 2. They are facing charges ranging from incitement to intentional violence.

Pouy said that while his son attended the protest, he carried no weapons.

Three days after Sokmean was beaten, family members took him to the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital, said Naly Pilorge, director of rights group Licadho.

After receiving treatment for a month, Sokmean returned home blind in his left eye and unable to work or care for his 3-year-old son due to frequent headaches and other effects from his injuries, Pouy said. An initial brain scan revealed no serious injuries, he said, though the family could not afford appropriate follow-up care and subsequent testing.

No answers are forthcoming. Immediately after his son’s death on Saturday, Pouy said, he took the body to a pagoda for cremation. No autopsy was performed and doctors at Visal Sok clinic did not release an official cause of death.

Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital director Ngy Meng yesterday declined to comment on Sokmean’s case or on how doctors there typically treat patients with severe head trauma. A neurologist at Royal Rattanak Hospital declined to comment on the proper course of treatment in similar cases.

Moeun Tola, head of the labour program at the Community Legal Education Center, said that if authorities had provided sufficient medical attention to those injured at the protest, “this guy would not have died”.

“The government [should feel obligated] to pay compensation to the victims, and if the government is really responsible for its own people, it should not respond in that way.”

But government officials have publicly said they will not compensate any victims of the crackdown, said Dave Welsh, country manager for labour rights group Solidarity Center.

Victims, families and NGOs calling for medical aid will likely have to pin their hopes on international clothing brands who buy from factories where victims worked or on other independent groups, Welsh said.

“For families to get justice, it’s sadly going to go to other members of civil society,” he said. “The government is on record as providing no justice.”

Military police spokesman Kheng Tito said yesterday that there will be an investigation into Sokmean’s death, though he did not provide more details.

In time, Pouy will speak with rights workers to discuss the possibility of taking legal action against authorities, he said. But for the moment, he is more concerned with bringing Sokmean’s ashes to his home province of Kampong Speu for a memorial service on Friday.

“We don’t have money, so we will celebrate the seven days ceremony and 100 days ceremony at the same time,” Pouy said.

Due to a miscommunication involving translated copy, an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that no brain scan was performed on Moun Sokmean.
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