In a vacant lot in Phnom Penh’s Choam Chao commune, motorbike tyres leave a deep impression on the sandy earth after a Sunday morning rain. The space – a daily hotspot for illegal cockfighting and dice gambling – lies uncharacteristically still.
There have been no games in the square for the past week, since a police raid turned to tragedy when Seak Ron, 33, was fatally shot by a cop’s stray bullet. Ron is gone, but what is left – and festering – is a deep distrust of the local Por Sen Chey district police.
Ron’s sister, Seak Mom, 23, is expecting her first child. “I’m due in March,” she says, with a smile. “It’s a boy.”
But her face falls when she contemplates that her son will never meet her brother. The siblings lived next door to each other and shared meals each day.
“It is hard to say what I feel,” Mom said. She didn’t attend her brother’s seven-day funeral ceremony in Takeo because, according to tradition, doing so “could be bad for the baby”.
When the raid began, Mom was sitting in her doorway, less than a metre from Ron at the moment he was shot. After going downstairs to buy a coffee, Ron had returned to the third floor of their building and was standing on the balcony, looking down at the cockfighting scene below.
At that moment, a handful of plainclothes police – witness estimates range from five to eight – fired bullets into the air. One ricocheted off a barrier and shot Ron through the throat. Another grazed his right wrist.
“I’ve been shot,” Mom and Ron’s wife remember him saying, as he took two steps backwards before collapsing.
“It was lucky you were sitting down,” a neighbour interjects, interrupting Mom. “Otherwise, you might have been shot.”
Another neighbour, Rin Sen, points to the large pock-mark on the balcony’s barrier. “There was a lot of blood,” he says, though there is no trace of it a week later. The only sign of his death are the remains of two yellow candles – a small shrine – burned all the way down to waxy puddles.
Sen says the police tried to scatter, but one officer ascended the stairs after hearing cries for help. Residents say he offered no assistance and threatened villagers taking pictures.
That was corroborated by another neighbour, who wished to be identified simply as An.
An was sitting outside his home around the corner when the bullets rang out. He ran to Ron’s building and helped get him to the hospital. He died on the way. An also took photos of the grisly scene.
“Why? Because the police were doing a crackdown and did not take care, and that is why this happened,” An said. “‘If you take another photo’, they told me, ‘we will throw away your phone.’”
Distrust of the police was also apparent even when disciplinary steps were taken. Two Por Sen Chey district police officers were questioned after the raid and one, Chorn Vireak, was charged with manslaughter. An insists that the officers he saw don’t fit the picture of Vireak circulated on the news. They were skinny, he said, while Vireak was more thick-set.
Fierce, and uncorroborated, rumours are circulating too about the police, with one villager saying he heard one officer was spotted carrying a rooster to the ring while others suspected the police were gambling themselves until their luck turned south.
An questions why they launched a raid in plain clothes, when they could have used a police car and shut down the operation in an orderly way.
Por Sen Chey District Police Chief Yim Saran, who oversaw the operation, poured cold water on any suggestion police had arrested a “fall guy”.
“Who would decide to be in jail instead of another? . . . If another person goes to jail instead of the person who did the shooting, do you think their family would agree with it?” he asked.
He was defensive of his forces rather than explaining what would be done to reform procedures.
“Why do you do this?” he asked a reporter. “You do it to attack the police and authorities? I have done everything to follow the procedure . . . We have followed the procedure, not only the authorities who do this work, but also the judiciary. I know some newspapers just attack the authorities.”
Saran hung up and could not be reached for further comment. But last week he told The Post police had “dropped” their weapons during the chaotic crackdown, leading to the accidental shooting.
But according to witness Chan Thy, police could be clearly seen pointing their weapons up and firing bullets into the air. The chaos that followed, he said, was of the force’s own making. “They told the people to lie on the ground, and they shot into the air. People were running. It was so messy,” he said.
San Chey, from accountability NGO ANSA, said this wasn’t the first time someone had been killed in a police raid gone wrong. “These experiences lead to mistrust by citizens . . . Now, we are strictly monitoring . . . the court’s decision and police preventive action to avoid tragedies from happening,” he said in an email.
An, meanwhile, said he was “disappointed” in the conduct of the police.
“I know it was unintentional, but why did the police not help him? All his family members are women. They did not call an ambulance or help them,” he said. “There are a lot of children here. What if they hit the kids?”
Thinking of her own child on the way, Mom is overwhelmed with regret. “It should not have happened to my brother,” she said.