ANGKOR BOREY DISTRICT, Takeo — Toem Vi lay on a bamboo platform set outside his home in Prey Phkoam commune on Friday. He was unconscious, his eyes closed, his breath gasping. He had been swaddled in a blanket and protected from the sun’s glare by the corrugated iron roof while some 50 relatives, friends and neighbors came to watch him die.
A young girl swatted flies away from his mouth, through which rasping coughs occasionally burst, forming the few signs of life visible beyond the labored rising and falling of his chest. On the side of his head, an open wound was glazed with coagulated blood and his wrists were littered with lacerations and contusions.
Vi suffered the injuries when he went out fishing on January 6, setting off at around 6 p.m. with Chea Saroeun and Moui Chana. The three fishermen loaded their boat with the night’s catch, and by 11 p.m. started the hourlong ride back to Vi’s home. Then a boat manned by the Takeo Fisheries Administration rammed them into the river bank, according to Saroeun.
“The engine died. There were three of us on the boat, including Toem Vi, but they didn’t ask questions. They just started swinging sticks,” recounted Saroeun. “I was hit in the head, but luckily I had my headlamp on. They broke it and the glass hit Chana — that was when Vi told us to run.”
Vi, who had been driving the boat, sat at the back of the narrow vessel near the engine and was unable to escape as the blows rained down on him. Both witnesses said they could see four or five officers attacking Vi, even though it was dark.
Saroeun and Chana recalled hearing him cry out, but said that they didn’t look back, instead opting to dodge electrified rat traps while running barefoot across the marshlands to their homes.
Reaching their homes around 7 a.m. the next day, it wasn’t until later in the morning that they found out what happened to their friend.
Priced Out of Hospital
“When I got there, he was alone — there was just a nurse who checked that his heart was still beating,” said Kong, a relative of Vi who declined to give his full name. “They weren’t taking care of him at all until family started showing up.”
“He wouldn’t have survived if we’d left him there. The doctor told us it was a boating accident,” he said, but Vi’s wounds didn’t look like an accident.
Unconvinced by the treatment at the provincial hospital, Kong and others transported Vi to Phnom Penh, spending $150 to get him to the capital and eventually into a bed at Kossamak Hospital on January 7.
But at $200 per day for treatment at Kossamak, Vi’s family could only afford to keep him there for two days and three nights before they had to spend an additional $130 to return him to his home in Takeo.
Kong said he had been told by the doctor at Kossamak that Vi would live if he woke up within a week, but that he would die if he remained unconscious beyond that point.
“We don’t know what will happen. It’s been nine days already, but he’s still breathing,” he said. Behind him, a young girl ran a cotton wool bud through Vi’s open mouth, removing a viscous yellow fluid and throwing the bud into a carrier bag filled with bloodied tissues.
“The wounds on his head are very severe. The doctors said there is a lot of internal damage and that even if he lives, he won’t be the same,” Kong said.
“You can see the cuts on his wrists where he raised his arms to his head to defend himself from the attackers,” he added.
Driven by Debt
Money was the motivating factor that saw Vi, Saroeun and Chana go out onto the waters so late on the night of January 6 and now it had become an insurmountable obstacle in getting Vi the treatment he needed.
Yim Sroeun, Vi’s wife and mother to their four children, explained that illegal fishing was the family’s only livelihood. Owning no land to farm and owing close to $9,000 in debt to various lenders, including microfinance institution LOLC, Sroeun explained that her husband would regularly use nets banned by the Fisheries Administration to catch enough fish to make ends meet.
“He was earning up to 30,000 riel [$7.50] each day, but now,” she gestured to her prone husband, “now I have no money and LOLC have our land title. They haven’t come around yet, but they are aware of what happened to my husband. This land is our only asset.”
Three of their four children work in factories in Thailand, while the other — a 13-year-old — remains at home with Vi and Sroeun.
“When I saw him at the Takeo Provincial Referral Hospital, his shirt was torn and covered with blood,” Sroeun recounted. “He was bleeding from both ears, there was mud on his face. I never expected it to end like this.”
She demanded that authorities find justice for her husband by properly disciplining the officers responsible for beating her husband almost to death.
“[They] need to pay money for compensation, [and] I want him removed from his position so that he will not continue to oppress the people. If not he will continue to do so,” Sroeun said. “I hope the authorities will help me find justice. I’m sad. I can no longer cry.”
Vi’s uncle, Tu Rim, also called for justice.
“We’re very upset because our country has laws. We accept that my nephew was fishing illegally. The authorities could have arrested and imprisoned him or demanded he pay a fine if they knew he was committing a crime. But to beat him nearly to death like that. … He should keep his life,” Rim said.
Not an Isolated Incident
Chiv Chandara, director of the Takeo Provincial Court’s prosecutors, said he ordered provincial police to investigate and file a case to the court.
Agriculture Minister Veng Sakhon would only say that officials in Takeo had elaborated enough and there was no need for his comments. Takeo provincial agriculture department deputy director Meng Sothy, in charge of fisheries, similarly declined to speak on the matter. Eng Chea San, director of the Fisheries Administration under the ministry, could not be reached.
Vi’s wife, Sroeun, said there had been previous beatings by fisheries officers, but nobody filed a complaint out of fear and a lack of witnesses.
“We’re all breaking the law to survive,” she said. “The beatings are supposed to be a threat. It’s supposed to intimidate us, but this time it went too far.”
One of Vi’s cousins, Phun Sreu, agreed.
“My niece was beaten by the officers. She couldn’t walk for a week. Maybe 10 people have been beaten badly this fishing season, but nothing as serious as this,” said Sreu, motioning to Vi’s unconscious body.
Sreu said she had been caught breaking the fishing laws twice, but was hit with a 6 million riel fine — roughly $1,500 — rather than violence. She said most fishers run when Fisheries Administration boats catch up to them at night, abandoning their boats, equipment and the night’s catch.
“If we obey the laws and don’t fish when or how they tell us to, then we can’t catch enough to survive. We use the electric fishing equipment to earn just enough to survive. I think every fisher in this village has paid fines to the Fisheries Administration — usually around 400,000 riel [$100], but it can be much more,” said Sreu.
“It’s lucky if you get away.”
Sreu added that Fisheries Administration officers demanded bribes whether they were breaking the law or not.
“The first one comes, you pay them, then a second one comes around and you have no money to pay them, so they beat you and confiscate your boat and equipment,” said Sreu. “We have to comply. They have guns.”
Mao Nguon, another of Vi’s relatives, said the late night nature of these confrontations mean few people see them, but it was terrifying to know it could happen.
“People go out at 6 p.m. or so, they don’t come back until 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. But when we see the Fisheries Administration’s boats, we get scared, we’re shaking with fear — they make us feel like criminals,” Nguon said.
Echoing this sentiment was Saroeun, who had been on the boat with Vi at the time of the near-fatal attack. He said that he had been caught by the Fisheries Administration before and had to pay fines in the past, but had never experienced violence like that.
“Even though it’s very small-scale fishing that we do, they just want our money,” he said.
The demand for bribes had become more frequent over the past year, he added.
Kong Lau, another fisher who lives in the village, said corruption and violence appeared to be worsening amid the pandemic-induced economic downturn.
“We never used to pay. But this past year the payments began and even when we pay they still attack us,” said Lau, a 53-year-old who explained that fishing was the only way he knew to make money.
“If those two guys didn’t escape, nobody would know that this happened, nobody would know our story,” he added.
Whether justice is affordable remains unclear for Vi’s family. His wife Sroeun, along with Saroeun and Chana, who witnessed the attack, had just returned on Friday from Phnom Penh where they sought to find legal representation.
According to Sroeun, the lawyers’ fees amounted to $1,500, including an upfront deposit of $500.
“I’m still thinking it over,” she said. “We don’t have the money, so I have to ask my relatives to see if I can borrow from them, but otherwise I’m thinking about going to a microfinance institution, although that’s a last resort. I will check with my family first.”
“I want justice,” she added. “I want to see the culprits removed from their posts.”
As of Tuesday, Sroeun said her husband was still alive, but her family had little hope he would recover.