The Interior Minister backtracked yesterday after previously declaring officials knew the identity of the person who shot three protesters outside a shoe factory in Svay Rieng province last week and refused to quash rumours that Bavet town governor Chhouk Bandith was a suspect.
Rushing to his car outside an ASEAN seminar yesterday morning, Interior Minister Sar Kheng told reporters they would “have to wait and see” if the governor was a suspect in the shooting outside the Kaoway Sports Ltd factory in Bavet town last Monday.
“We don’t know the identity of the gun shooter yet and our police are looking to arrest the suspect,” he told reporters, before declining to answer any further questions.
The minister’s comments come six days after he declared officials had identified the shooter and had sufficient evidence to convict the perpetrator.
At the time, he declined to reveal details about the suspect’s identity due to the ongoing investigation into the person’s whereabouts.
Sar Kheng’s comments also contradict Svay Rieng provincial police chief Prach Rim, who yesterday said police were pursuing a suspect.
“We know their identity already, so we will arrest them soon, and you will know who they are when we arrest them,” he said.
Chhouk Bandith told the Post last week that he was aware of rumours that he was the shooter, which he categorically denied. Since then, he has not answered his phone despite repeated attempts to contact him.
The three victims were shot at a protest of about 6,000 people last Monday morning outside the Kaoway Sports factory in the Manhattan Special Economic Zone where protesters pelted the building with rocks and lit fires, demanding transport and food allowances.
Eyewitness reports suggest a gunman dressed in a khaki police-style outfit and flanked by a bodyguard and a man dressed in police uniform arrived in a car, fired into the crowd and then ran off, escaping in another vehicle.
Moeun Tola, head of the labour program at the Cambodian Legal Education Centre, questioned why someone who committed a crime in front of police and thousands of people was not arrested immediately in a case where there are some obvious clues.
“One, the workers were told the governor was coming. Two, the man [perpetrator] came in the expensive [Lexus] car with bodyguards and a couple of days later, Sar Kheng said the police officials had identified the gunman,” he said. “It is so strange that Sar Kheng changed his message [to say] he does not know who the gunman is, so strange.”
He said he was worried the suspect, who has now been alerted, would have had sufficient time to flee the country.
The shooting has attracted significant international media attention largely because Kaoway Sports supplies sportswear giant PUMA and sparked concern amongst international buyers that source products from Cambodia.
Jill Tucker, chief technical adviser at the International Labour Organisation’s Better Factories Cambodia, said buyers were becoming increasingly concerned to see that due process was conducted by those investigating the case.
“I know that there is an effort right now to communicate these concerns to the government from a bunch of buyers, they want to see that due process is followed and that the gunman will be held accountable,” she said.
“The brands are really looking for a complete investigation and for there to be a due process in this case, they just don’t want to see a repeat of 2004.”
In 2004, the president of Cambodia’s Free Trade Union, which represented garment workers, was gunned down in front of a kiosk while reading a newspaper.
Two suspects, both of whom had alibis, were convicted for the crime in a trial where no forensic evidence was examined and no witnesses called to testify.