As authorities yesterday searched for officials suspected of killing three forestry patrollers in a brazen ambush near Mondulkiri’s border with Vietnam, families, friends and colleagues struggled to make sense of the sudden deaths of their loved ones.
Thol Khna, 26, had worked as a Geographic Information Systems staffer for Wildlife Conservation Society Cambodia (WCS) for just six months before going out on patrol Tuesday in Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary. He was joined that day by Military Police officer Sok Vathana and Theun Soknay, a ranger with the Environment Ministry for the sanctuary. In the late afternoon, the three were suddenly ambushed about 20 kilometres from the border in O’Raing district.
Bou Bun Chheat, the district police chief, said yesterday authorities are searching for Phal Penh, a police officer in charge of the O’Rolear border post, and Keut Veha, the head of the armed forces’ Regiment 103. Mom Vanda, a spokesman for the Mondulkiri Provincial Court prosecutor, declined to identify the suspects, and provincial police would not comment.
“While they were patrolling, they were attacked, so they could not fight back because their group has only one gun, which was the military police officer’s,” Bun Chheat said, adding that Vathana, the only armed officer, was the first to be shot. In total, seven bullet casings from an automatic rifle were found at the scene, he said.
Far from the borderlands of Mondulkiri yesterday, Khna’s wife Im Sreyneat, 25, recounted receiving the call that evening at their home in Paen Meas village in Takeo’s Tram Kak district.
“My husband always wanted to work in the forest. It made him feel free and happy. He really loved his job,” she said.
But while Khna loved his work, Sreyneat had been worried about the risks it entailed, perhaps all the more so since she gave birth to the couple’s daughter a few months ago.
But Khna, the youngest of four brothers and the first in his family to attend university, had reassured her, saying that he was “clever, so everything will be alright”.
His mother, Klork Morm, wanted him to be an army medic, but the money for an education was tight. Instead, his three older brothers sacrificed so that he could attend the Royal University of Agriculture to study forestry – a career choice she said was born from a childhood passion for the forests.
“He always wanted to be a forestry director,” she said.
Morm noted that Khna was widely loved by his colleagues at WCS, many of whom were present at the family home yesterday, though others were at a funeral hundreds of kilometres away in Mondulkiri for ranger Theun Soknay – a former WCS staffer himself.
Soknay’s brother, Yeut Kan, 24, said yesterday his brother had both sacrificed his health and his time for the forest.
“He used to tell me that if one day there was a person having bad intentions against him because he protects the forest, he would dare to die,” he said. “We demand the authorities to find the three who were involved in shooting my brother.”
While authorities are putting blame squarely on officers working along the border, the details as to what sparked the confrontation have been scarce. National Police spokesman Kirth Chantharith said on Tuesday night that earlier that day there had been a report of confiscated chainsaws at the hands of an environmental official.
The head of Border Police Unit 621 had instructed the head of the nearby border post to “check on it”, so he headed to the area with two soldiers. Soon thereafter, the shooting began.
Chantharith could not be reached yesterday to confirm that Penh, the officer in charge of the O’Rolear border post, is indeed a suspect.
Phean Linda, the wife of slain Military Police officer Vathana, said yesterday she received a call in the early afternoon from her husband, who told her he was tired from patrolling. When the phone rang four hours later, interrupting her work at her salon, it was his superior on the line.
Vathana had been a Military Police officer for seven years and had recently been working closely with WCS on patrols. Because Environment Ministry rangers are not allowed to carry guns, they are typically accompanied by Military Police.
At his funeral at Wat Sansam Kosal in Meanchey district yesterday, Linda praised her husband as a good man and father to two young daughters who always made sure his family had enough to eat.
“I hope authorities find justice for him because I lost a warm family. For my whole life, there will be no happiness,” she said.
“The biggest thing is that I want them to find who killed my husband.”