One of the chief instigators of a brutal mob attack on a university professor in Phnom Penh was identified by Daun Penh district officials as a member of their district security force.
Though a statement on Tuesday referred to the man, identified as Pheach Kimhak, as a “former” district security guard, in several widely circulated videos of the attack, he appears to be wearing clothing in line with a Daun Penh uniform, including khaki pants and a wide, military-style belt. Though he is seen in a bright blue T-shirt in the video, in the early frames he appears to have a khaki shirt, also worn by Daun Penh guards, tied around his waist.
On Sunday evening Suy Sareth, 52, an English professor at the University of Cambodia, is believed to have struck and injured Seur Seng, who was riding a motorbike in Russey Keo district. Sareth then fled the scene and incensed witnesses pursued him to Tuol Kork district, claiming Seng had been killed.
What followed was a brutal attack against Sareth, with at least a dozen people throwing punches, kicking him in the head, throwing large rocks at his face and slamming his fingers in the car door, as well as smashing and jumping on his car.
In CCTV and other footage from the scene, at least four men can be seen instigating the attack that would later gain force. Among them is Kimhak, who can be seen throwing violent blows, as well as a man wearing tropical print, and another in a chequered shirt.
Despite the faces of many of the perpetrators being clearly visible in the footage, no arrests were made as of Tuesday night.
Phnom Penh Traffic Police Deputy Director Sem Sokunthea was unable to say how many suspects police were pursuing. “We cannot reveal because it is still under the investigation, and when we tell that we had arrested this number of people." he said. "It would alert them.”
Sokunthea added the injured motorbike driver was taken for treatment for injuries to his back and right leg at Hong Hak clinic, as was Sareth, before Sareth was transported to Vietnam due to the severity of his wounds.
Seng’s daughter, Kan Seu Chou, 30, said her father’s leg was broken in two places and he sustained other minor injuries, but doctors expected him to recover in five to six months.
She said Sareth’s family had reached out to hers, promising compensation. “He was wrong and he should not have run, but for our people that beat him, when they got angry . . . this is too brutal and they wanted to take his life,” she said.
“At hospital when I saw him, I had pity on him," she said. "This kind of rock can kill him.”
Senior Interior Ministry police official Pheng Vannak pointed out Kimhak’s identity on Facebook on Tuesday and said police had ordered authorities in Battambang, where he is from, to locate him.
Battambang Deputy Provincial Police Chief Chet Vanny said he had contacted Phnom Penh authorities to say they had not found Kimhak. “We’re burning an arm and a leg to pay attention to this case,” he said.
A member of the Battambang town police, who declined to give his name, said Kimhak had relocated to Phnom Penh a year ago and had not returned since.
In a statement, the Daun Penh district administration distanced itself from Kimhak, labelling him a “former” district security guard, and saying he acted as an individual and they did not support his violence.
However, Daun Penh security forces have gained notoriety in the past for their repeated bloody crackdowns on nonviolent protesters, including Boeung Kak Lake activists and pro-opposition demonstrators. They have also been implicated in last year’s death of sex worker Pen Kunthea, who drowned while fleeing from a group of guards.
Several police and district spokespeople could not be reached yesterday, but in a statement Phnom Penh Municipal Police condemned the violent incident, saying it contradicted the law, “social morality” and the Cambodian tradition of “being Buddhist”.
They called for an immediate stop to violent attacks on motorists and urged witnesses to hand over suspects to police according to legal procedure. A hit-and-run offence resulting in serious injury can be punished with a one- to three-year jail term.
Social analyst Meas Nee said incidents like these were part of a “cycle of violence”.
“The reason the driver [feels like they] have to run away is not because they are scared of arrest, but because they are scared they will be beaten . . . They have to run for their lives,” Nee said. He said the involvement of a former Daun Penh security guard was a major concern for the public, as they were poorly trained or even “trained to create more violence”.
A family friend of Sareth’s, Chea Lin, said Sareth remained in hospital in Vietnam and although he was unable to speak, he could shake his head. He remained unable to open his left eye due to severe swelling.
“We hope that the authority will . . . not allow the perpetrators who caused this to get away with it,” she said, adding that “next time we should handle it peacefully through law. This act is too far.”