Only one of 38 people arrested over Tuesday’s violent clash between garment workers and police was an employee of the SL Garment factory, police said yesterday.
Choun Narin, deputy municipal police chief, said police had sent two people to court over the riot in the capital’s Meanchey district, which began with more than 600 striking SL workers and ended with police opening fire, killing 49-year-old rice vendor Eng Sokhom.
“Among 31 people, there is only [one] SL worker and the others are opportunists who used the violence to attack police and destroy public property – that’s why we arrested them,” he said.
However, none of the 29 who walked free yesterday - seven detained monks were released the night before - was charged with a crime, and many spoke of being arrested at random.
Speaking to Post reporters from inside a cell at Phnom Penh Municipal Police headquarters, Krong Soknet, 30, a motodop, alleged police beat him up before arresting him, even though he wasn’t part of the protest.
“I don’t know why the police targeted me and beat me like an animal.”
Khim, 27, one of 13 others who shared a small cell with Soknet on Tuesday night, said police arrested him after those who had actually attacked them fled.
“I knew I didn’t do anything wrong, that’s why I stayed in the pagoda,” the currency exchange worker said.
The two men sent to court yesterday were yet to be charged, but had thrown rocks at police and were involved in the destruction of two police cars and motorbikes, Narin alleged. Neither were SL employees.
Across town, a group of about 40 mourners yesterday said goodbye to Sokhom.
They knelt down with their heads bowed toward the casket that contained the rice vendor’s body.
“I am heartbroken and angry with whoever shot my wife dead,” said Ngeth Vong, her 51-year-old husband. “I call on police to investigate this case, find the facts and give justice to my wife and other victims.”
As anger continued to build over the police’s decision to unleash live ammunition on the workers, police announced they had formed a committee that would investigate the bloody clash.
“We are investigating the woman’s death,” said Eng Sophea, chief of the Phnom Penh municipal serious crime office. “Someone has been shot dead – and we have to investigate that.”
In front of the small shrine that surrounded his wife’s casket, Vong said that when Sokhom was hit in the chest with a bullet, they initially underestimated the severity of her injury.
He and one of his sons first tried to get her on a motorbike, but she was unable to sit up, Vong said. They then carried her to a tuk-tuk, which took her to Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital, where she was pronounced dead on arrival.
Stung Meanchey police questioned Vong in the hours after his wife’s death, he said. They asked whether he had seen the faces or any other identifying attributes of the police who killed his wife, he added.
“I told them that I did not see their faces or know their names. If I saw them or knew their names, I would file a complaint against them directly to the court.”
The municipality provided Vong with 5 million riel ($1,250) to pay for the funeral, he said. Sokhom’s body will be cremated today.
“The police chief made the order to shoot,” a villager, who was not at the protest, alleged at the funeral. “If there was no order to shoot, there’d be no shooting.”
Nearby, at the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital, Ty Sophanith, 31, lay in the last of four beds in a room on the hospital’s third floor, with bandages on his thigh and neck and an IV in his arm.
Bullets fired by police grazed Sophanith’s neck and hit his right thigh, splintering the bone, as the SL employee stood in front of the Stung Meanchey pagoda, he said.
“A doctor tried to tell me that I would be able to walk normally after the wound heals,” Sophanith said, less than 24 hours after doctors removed the bullet. “But I am concerned, because other doctors told me that the injury could render that leg immobile.”
Sok Sophoeun, 26, Sophanith’s wife, also worried about her husband’s recovery prospects, saying that she and their 5-year-old son depended on Sophanith’s ability to earn money.
CNRP lawmaker Ly Sreyvyna, who is also a doctor, looked at Sophanith’s X-ray when she walked into the room with fellow CNRP elected lawmakers Yim Sovann and Son Chhay.
Sophanith and doctors should still be concerned about whether his bones align properly to heal correctly and the formation of blood clots, she said before decrying the police shooting.
“This is criminal.… They really meant to kill him,” Sreyvyna said. “All [SL workers] want is a raise, not a war.”
On his way from the hospital to visit the Stung Meanchey pagoda, Chhay said authorities opening fire on crowds of unarmed people was nothing new, referencing former Bavet town governor Chhouk Bandith’s shooting at a strike last year and the September 15 shooting of Mao Sok Chan, 29, during a clash on the Kbal Thnal overpass.
The International Labor Organization released a statement yesterday, pushing garment workers and police to avoid a similar incident in the future.
“We strongly condemn the use of violence by both authorities and protesters and urge all involved parties to respect the rule of law, exercise maximum restraint and express their views peacefully,” the statement says.
But Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers’ Association in Cambodia, called the police shooting a reasonable response to demonstrators throwing rocks on Tuesday.
“When you have a mob of a couple of hundred people rushing you, throwing rocks at you, you feel in danger.… You will do whatever you can to defend yourself,” Loo said.
He added that he identified with the fear police most likely felt, because he was inside the Sabrina factory in Kampong Speu in June when a demonstration outside turned violent. “If one of those hits your head, you’ll meet your maker,” he said.
But according to those who walked from police custody yesterday, those responsible for violence that injured more than 20 officers are yet to be found.
“I was walking along the sidewalk, and then police arrested me,” said Chhay Theany, 31, the sole SL employee detained.
REPORTING BY KHOUTH SOPHAK CHAKRYA, SEAN TEEHAN, MOM KUNTHEAR AND SHANE WORRELL