The fatal shooting of a 21-year-old woman in a Kandal beer garden throws new light on the impunity of bodyguards
Eleanor Ainge Roy
A Phnom Penh beer garden - proprietors say that armed bodyguards pose a risk to staff and customers alike.
THE once-bustling Floating Beer Garden and Restaurant in Kandal province's Kien Svay district is now a quiet, dejected place. The road leading to the small establishment is muddy after the recent rains, and water drips from the low, over-hanging trees making the air rank and cloying.
Two weeks ago, the Floating Beer Garden was the site of a brutal shooting that left 21-year-old Sor Samphoa dead.
The alleged killer, an intoxicated Royal Cambodian Armed Forces major moonlighting as a bodyguard, has not faced any criminal charges.
"Sor Samphoa worked at a factory near Pochentong Airport, and she had never been to my restaurant before," said Leang Davy, owner of the Floating Beer Garden and Restaurant, talking about the night of the shooting.
"It was a fun night, lots of joking. It had just began to rain and Sor Samphoa said, ‘We need some plants to dispel the rain'," she said.
"The RCAF major was drunk, and he took out his gun and said, ‘No! You just need to shoot into the sky'," Leang Davy added.
"Everyone was laughing and playing around. He put his gun down on the table and it went off - shooting Sor Samphos. I was panic-struck and very, very scared."
Sor Samphos died that night, and her body was taken to a nearby pagoda.
The major was briefly arrested, but after paying the dead woman's family US$2,700 in compensation, he was released.
Leang Davy said she will now attempt to keep bodyguards out of her restaurant because she is wary of trouble.
There are many instances ... when bodyguards have used their guns whilE drinking in groups in beer gardens and karaoke bars.
"All the businesses around here have suffered because of the shooting. I try to keep the bodyguards out, but sometimes they conceal their guns in their pockets. From now on I think I will just tell them that the bar is full," she said.
Ou Virak, director of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, is not surprised at the light treatment received by the major.
"There are many instances I can recall when bodyguards have used their guns while drinking in groups at beer gardens or karaoke bars," he said.
"They are never held responsible before the law. They pay compensation, and then they are released as free men. As a result, the perpetrators are not afraid of the consequences of such a crime."
But Hin Bunheang, Prime Minister Hun Sen's chief of bodyguards, told the Post that he does "not excuse any bodyguards who use their guns in the wrong way to kill or injure people".
He added these people should be arrested and dealt with by the court system.
Ministry of Interior Under Secretary of State Srun Vong Vannak said that while he knows of bodyguards who use their guns recklessly, none of them are present in the ministry's forces, which are rigorously trained and disciplined.
None are allowed to keep their weapons after their missions.
"Our government and Hun Sen pay attention to protect the safety of the people by not allowing bodyguards to use their guns whenever they want," Srun Vong Vannak said. "If they do, they will be arrested and punished by law."
Despite such assurances, multiple Phnom Penh beer garden owners interviewed by the Post last week said that dealing with bodyguards is a delicate business because they have the potential to cause many problems for bar owners and are often aggressive or demanding.
"We have four security personnel who work here, and they check every person that comes in the door. But sometimes [the bodyguards] hide their guns, and we cannot demand to search every inch of them," said one beer garden owner who declined to be named.
"When a man like this comes in, we all know he is a risky customer, and we must treat him like a king. The staff here are like my family, and I am scared for them when someone like that is around," the owner added.
Cheng Solyda, 35, a local NGO worker who often goes to beer gardens with his co-workers and friends, said that when a bodyguard is present at a bar everyone becomes uncomfortable and scared. "The government must make more of an effort to crack down on illegal gun users and firmly punish those who do wrong. They are a serious threat to society."
Another beer garden owner said the worst violence tends to occur once customers have left the beer garden and are wandering the streets armed and drunk.
"It is a risk once my employees leave the beer garden," said the owner.
"But I can only try to protect them at work."
Am Sam Ath, a monitor at the Cambodian rights group Licadho, said cases of bodyguard impunity cannot continue to go unpunished.
"Civil compensation is good, but the persecutor must also stand before the courts, whether the murder was intentional or not," he said.