Bavet town governor Chhouk Bandith is the man who gunned down three unarmed women at a protest last week, Interior Minister Sar Kheng alleged yesterday, saying an official complaint had been filed against him.
Outside an unrelated conference, the minister told reporters the governor would be arrested imminently in relation to the shootings at the Kaoway Sports Ltd shoe factory in Svay Rieng province’s Bavet town during a February 19 protest of about 6,000 people.
“Related to the arrest of a suspect or not, it is not the duty of the Ministry of Interior, it is the duty of the court, but it will not take longer than one week because we have to do it clearly,” he said.
Allegations have steadily surfaced against the high-profile suspect since he told the Post last Tuesday he was aware of accusations against him which he categorically denied.
Anonymous police officials have previously told the Post that Chhouk Bandith became enraged and accidentally shot the three women while attempting to fire warning shots after a protester threw a rock at his head.
He had reportedly come to mediate the protest, which had turned violent, with workers hurling rocks at the factory and lighting tyres as they demanded basic benefits.
Rights groups have expressed concern that the slow reaction of authorities to the shooting may have given the suspect ample time to flee the country from Bavet town, near the Vietnamese border.
When contacted yesterday, Chhouk Bandith simply said he had a “meeting with Vietnam” before declining to comment further.
Men Vibol, deputy governor of Svay Rieng, said he did not know where Chhouk Bandith was, but that he had not attended provincial hall meetings since the shooting.
“I was surprised when I got that news. I don’t how why he did this to his villagers. In name, he is the governor of Bavet town, which means that he is the father of villagers who live there,” he said.
Hing Bun Chea, chief Svay Rieng provincial prosecutor, confirmed he had received a complaint against Chhouk Bandith, which he said he was now checking.
Though Chhouk Bandith’s whereabouts remain a mystery, Moeun Tola, head of the labour program and the Community Legal Education Centre, alleged yesterday that the politician had been in Phnom Penh three days ago attempting to buy the silence of a victim.
He said the family of 21-year-old Buot Chinda – the most seriously injured victim, who was shot through the chest – were approached at Calmette hospital by a man they recognised as the Bavet town governor.
“One question he asked to the family, he asked how much compensation do you need? He did not say that he was the shooter, but it was an interesting question that he asked how much compensation do you need?” he said.
Buot Chinda’s brother Sam Sinat said seven Bavet police officials also visited his family on Wednesday and offered his family “a gift from Deputy Prime Minister Men Sam An” of 2 million riel, about US$500, in return for not filing a complaint.
“The money that they gave to me, I am wondering if they don’t want me to file a complaint against them, [but] even though I got that money, I still filed a complaint to find justice for my sister,” he said.
Moeun Tola said the family had told him the officials also convinced them to thumbprint a document, which they could not read and later discovered was an agreement not to press charges.
“We don’t understand why the group from city hall approached the victim and asked her to thumbprint the agreement not to sue – it is a crime, it cannot be conciliated or mediated,” he said.
He also questioned whether charges would be laid against police officers that eyewitnesses had seen assisting the suspect to escape after he shot the victims in front of thousands of protesters outside a factory equipped with security cameras.
Two other women, 18-year-old Keo Neth and 23-year-old Nuth Sakhorn, were also shot in an incident that has potentially serious consequences for one of Cambodia’s biggest industries – the manufacturing of footwear and garments for international brands.
Before the shooting outside Kaoway Sports, which supplies sportswear giant PUMA, workers were lobbying for a $10 monthly travel allowance and 50 cent daily food subsidy, which the company has since agreed to.
Maeve Galvin, a consultant at the International Labour Organisation’s Better Factories Cambodia, said the shooting could have “frightening” implications for an industry that employs 350,000 women who indirectly support about 10 per cent of the population.
“We’re one of the organisations trying to ensure that the Cambodian garment industry keeps a good name, and in reality, an incident like this is quite damaging to the industry,” she said.
Buyers were “really” concerned and looking at collaborative action they could take, including discussions with the Ministry of Commerce, she said, adding that it was crucial a full, transparent investigation was conducted.
In a statement released late yesterday, PUMA said it was trying to get official government confirmation that a complaint had been filed against Chhouk Bandith, emphasizing it was in their own interests to rapidly establish what had happened.
Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufactures Association of Cambodia, welcomed the identification of the shooter, which he said cleared staff at Kaoway – a GMAC member – of any wrongdoing.
“[But] what about the violence? We also need the government to take action against the workers or whoever was behind the mob activity that destroyed the property of Kaoway factory,” he said, adding this was also a concern of buyers.