At 10 a.m. on January 3, about 2,000 members of the security forces, mostly military police, advanced down Phnom Penh’s factory-lined Veng Sreng Street, spraying AK-47 assault rifle fire into a crowd of about 100 protesters who had been throwing stones and crude Molotov cocktails.
Military police also fired at the upper balconies of surrounding apartment buildings, where protesters were hurling objects down at them.
The military police left five protesting garment factory workers dead, at least 40 injured by bullets, and 13 more beaten and then imprisoned in a maximum-security prison in Kompong Cham province where they have been denied bail ahead of their trial, a date for which has not yet been set.
Now, one month after the killings of the five protesters, which were condemned by human rights groups and the U.N., a military police official said Monday that there has been no progress in their investigation into who among their ranks fired those lethal shots, or who gave the orders to open fire.
“We are proceeding with the investigation but haven’t received any results,” said Brigadier General Kheng Tito, spokesman for the National Military Police.
If the military police investigation does ever produce results, however, it is not likely to answer the most pressing question: Who is responsible for killing five unarmed protesters?
On January 7, Brig. Gen. Tito said that military police “never shoot at a target to take a life,” adding that any investigation of the January 3 killings would not be into the role of military police, but into the role of the “inciters” who led the protest.
Victims and witnesses to the security operation on Veng Sreng Street reported seeing military police officers fire their assault rifles over the heads of protesters before quickly shifting their lethal aim level with the strikers. Long after the five were killed, military police officers continued to respond to stones thrown at riot shields with sporadic rifle fire, aimed directly at protesters.
“I saw them shooting only to kill,” said Ouk Mara, 17, whose head was grazed by a bullet one month ago. “It was like watching children play with fireworks,” she said from a hospital bed following the violence.
“The military police were running around shooting indiscriminately,” said Heath Rady, 20, another worker who was shot in the chest during the violence.
Since the violent suppression, the government has come under heavy condemnation for the disproportionate use of force against mostly stone-throwing youths.
The International Federation for Human Rights, along with local rights groups Licadho and Adhoc, issued a statement on January 6 saying “The killing of demonstrators by government authorities is totally unacceptable” and calling for a “quick, thorough and independent investigation into the January 3 killings.”
The U.N.’s Human Rights Office in Geneva issued a similar statement two days later. “We urge the Cambodian authorities to launch a prompt and thorough investigation into the killing of five and wounding of at least 42 protesters by military police,” the statement says.
On January 17, the Asia Pacific Forum for Women, Law, and Development declared a Global Week of Action for Cambodia in which unions and civil society groups around the world held protests in capital cities calling for an end to state-sanctioned violence and the release of 23 imprisoned protesters.
Thirty international union federations and major brands, including Wal-Mart and Gap, sent a letter directly to Prime Minister Hun Sen on January 17 expressing “grave concern” over the shootings.
“The use of deadly force against protesting workers will not result in long-term industrial peace and jeopardizes Cambodia’s position as a stable sourcing location for international brands,” the letter says.
During his latest visit to Cambodia last month, Surya Subedi, the U.N.’s human rights envoy to Cambodia, condemned the shooting of striking garment workers.
“I am deeply concerned about the conduct of authorities in relation to the events of the first week of January,” Mr. Subedi said during a January 17 press conference.
Two bystanders were also killed by military police and national police gunfire, and many more wounded, during protests near the Monivong Bridge in September and in Meanchey district in November. No apparent progress has been made in those killings either, despite claims by police and military police to be investigating both.
On January 12, Mr. Hun Sen announced the creation of a committee, headed by Interior Minister Sar Kheng, to “study” what happened on Veng Sreng Street.
Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, deferred questions Monday about the investigations into slain protesters to National Police chief Neth Savoeun and National Military Police Commander Sao Sokha, who he said are now heading the committee investigating the shootings by their own officers.
And though the government has made no headway in its investigation of the indiscriminate killings of protesters and bystanders, and the wounding of others, it has seen fit to reward the police and military police who suffered mostly minor injuries during recent protests.
During a ceremony on Thursday, according to the Khmer-language daily newspaper Koh Santepheap, 29 military police officers and 16 national police officers were each given about $200 for their service during recent protests on behalf of Prime Minister Hun Sen and his wife, Bun Rany.
“[Mr. Hun Sen and Ms. Rany] praise the strong stance of police forces and military police forces that made efforts to protect social order and security while the opposition party created the situation by walking around to incite violence,” the Koh Santepheap article says.
Brig. Gen. Tito declined to comment on the cash gifts to military police.
Khuon Srey Em, the mother of Tech Theng, 18, a protester who received brain surgery after being severely beaten by military police on Veng Sreng Street, said that her family has received nothing from the government since her son was almost killed.
“I haven’t received any compensation from the government and I regret that authorities are yet to arrest any of the perpetrators,” she said, adding that she feared that rewarding members of the police and military police units who committed the violence would encourage similar behavior in the future.
“By providing money, the government is encouraging police and military police to use more violence…against workers,” she said.
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