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Children in the firing line

A schoolgirl rides past destroyed military vehicles while riot police remain armed during Tuesday's violent clashes in Phnom Penh's Meanchey district
A schoolgirl rides past destroyed military vehicles while riot police remain armed during Tuesday's violent clashes in Phnom Penh's Meanchey district. Kara Fox

Children in the firing line

The sound of bullets whizzing by Stung Meanchey Primary School terrified 13-year-old Mun Sonita as she sat in social studies class on Tuesday morning.

“My class and I were scared and we dropped to the floor,” Sonita said in the school’s courtyard yesterday, as children scurried about playing during their lunch break.

Her teacher ultimately had to evacuate the classroom as tear gas seeped in, burning the faces of Sonita and her sixth-grade classmates.

Intense rioting near the Stung Meanchey Bridge in the capital on Tuesday culminated with police opening fire with live ammunition into a crowd of hundreds of striking garment workers attempting to march from SL Garment Processing (Cambodia) Ltd to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s house.

Police gunfire killed one woman and injured nine others, according to a tally taken by rights group Licadho and the Community Legal Education Center. Two teenagers arrested during the riot, aged 14 and 17, were charged yesterday with damaging property, insulting public officials, obstruction of public officials and aggravating circumstances, according to CLEC executive director Yeng Virak.

Amid the rock throwing, tear gas dispersal and gunfire, little consideration was given to the fact that hundreds of children at the school across the street from Stung Meanchey pagoda could get caught in the crossfire.

When bullets began flying, some schoolchildren mistook the sound for fireworks, and tried to walk outside for a look, said an administrator at the school, who asked not to be identified as he is not authorised to speak with the media.

Teachers kept their students inside the classrooms, until tear gas forced teachers in two classrooms in the school’s northwest corner to move their students to other rooms.

During the onslaught, children could be seen fleeing on foot and bicycles out of the school complex’s rear exit that leads to an alleyway just off Veng Sreng Road, where the riot remained in progress.

“When people get injured as a result of a crackdown, we all suffer,” the administrator said. “We don’t want to see this.”

Although no children were reported injured during the calamity, some seem to have been deeply affected by it, said another teacher at the school who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“The children are very scared,” the teacher said. “It’s difficult to manage them in class.”

In an interview yesterday, National Military Police spokesman Kheng Tito – who was not in Meanchey district during the riot – said police were stationed nearby the school to protect the children.

However, Post reporters at the scene saw no police stationed at the school when authorities opened fire on demonstrators.

Tito defended the use of deadly force, asserting that police wanted to contain the violence to the area in front of the pagoda, where at least two police officers were being held captive by a mob of protesters.

The measure prevented violence from spreading to other areas of the district, which, Tito said, would have endangered more bystanders.

“When [demonstrators] don’t listen to us and cause violence against authorities, we must take action to keep the peace.”

Phnom Penh municipal police chief Chuon Sovann declined to comment yesterday, and directed a Post reporter to a police spokesman, who could not be reached before press time.

Eang Vuthy, director of rights group Equitable Cambodia, yesterday implored the government to investigate the shooting.

The fact that it occurred in the school’s direct vicinity only added to the wanton disregard for human life police showed when they fired into the crowd, he said.

“This is a primary school full of kids,” Vuthy said. “You cannot shoot guns there, you’re frightening them, you’re scaring them and this is not a way to respond.”

Dropping off his five-year-old daughter at Stung Meanchey Primary School yesterday, Mao Youra, 45, said that although his daughter attends school in the afternoon and was not there during the riot on Tuesday, she feels unsafe attending school after hearing about the riot.

If similar violence occurs near the school again, Youra said, he will pull her out.

“I don’t want to see this happen again,” Youra said. “I am scared about this.”

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