Cambodian Family Still Mourns Missing Son on Crackdown’s Fourth Anniversary

The family of a young Cambodian missing since police fired on striking garment workers four years ago still hopes for answers to his fate, fearing he may have been killed and his body destroyed by authorities seeking to cover up evidence of his death.

Khem Sophath was reported by witnesses to have been shot after Cambodian police fired at and killed at least four people and wounded nearly 40 others as they broke up the strike in the Veng Sreng factory district of the capital Phnom Penh.

Video of the Jan. 3, 2014 violence captured by RFA’s Khmer Service showed police firing at a group of people scrambling from the scene, with one person falling in a pool of blood and surrounded by weeping colleagues and relatives.

The violence came as the now-banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, which had backed workers’ unions in their campaign for a higher minimum wage, held daily protests demanding that Prime Minister Hun Sen step down following accusations of voter fraud in national elections the year before.

Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service, Sophath’s mother In Leakheaka said she still seeks closure as she and other family members conduct Buddhist prayers in memory of her missing son on the fourth anniversary of what may have been his death.

“He has been missing all this time,” Leakheaka told RFA.

“We could have a sense of closure if his body were returned to us so that we could conduct a proper funeral, but the authorities may have dumped his body,” she said, adding, “They may have even given it to a crocodile for food.”

Hard-working, dutiful son

Sophath had been a hard-working and dutiful son who regularly sent money home that he had earned at his factory, Leakheaka said.

“We are poor and desperate, and that’s why we allowed him to work in Phnom Penh,” she said.

“If we had known that the authorities were this barbaric, we would never have allowed him to go to work there.”

Also speaking to RFA, Sophath’s father Khem Soeun said he still seeks justice for his son.

“I want to see him again. Even if he is dead, I want to see his body,” he said.

Soeun said he had been told by witnesses to the police crackdown that Sophath had been shot in the chest and left to die before being tossed into a vehicle and taken away.

“His friend, who was shot in the arm, said that this was what happened,” he said, adding that the friend would also have been killed if co-workers had not hidden him from police who were chasing him.

Cambodian authorities have long since closed their investigation into the Veng Sreng shootings, saying no one is now unaccounted for and blaming the unrest on rioters trying to topple the government.

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Richard Finney.

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