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Senior Naval Officer Wanted Over Koh Rong Shooting Incident

FILE - Buses carrying journalists drive on the jetty mooring warships during a rare media tour of Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base, in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, Friday, July 26, 2019. (Sophat Soeung/VOA Khmer)
FILE - Buses carrying journalists drive on the jetty mooring warships during a rare media tour of Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base, in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, Friday, July 26, 2019. (Sophat Soeung/VOA Khmer)

The National Police said Friday they are on the lookout for Ream Naval Base deputy commander Has Sothea and two other men for their involvement in a shooting incident with a group of Chinese nationals at Koh Rong island earlier this month.

Deputy National Police Chief Chhay Kimkhoeun said the three individuals, two of whom have not been identified by the police, are on the run after they were part of a brawl with 16 Chinese nationals on the island. The only individual the police spokesperson could identify was Has Sothea.

“The court is in charge of this case now,” Chhay Kimkhoeun told VOA Khmer. “And we are seeking to arrest the three individuals who are on the run.”

However, police officials down the chain-of-command said there were no arrest warrants or instructions to detain the three absconding individuals.

Heng Kim An, district police chief for Koh Rong, said the incident took place the night of May 14 at Thansur Beach near Mafiya Resort. The resort is owned by Tea Vichet, son of Navy Chief Tea Vinh, and is also the nephew of Defense Minister Tea Banh.

Heng Kim An declined to comment further directing queries to provincial police officials.

Lim Bunheng, a spokesperson for Preah Sihanouk Provincial Court, said there were 19 people involved in the case, including 16 Chinese nationals, but declined to provide details on the three Cambodian nationals or whether the court had issued an arrest warrant for them.

The likely charges are “intentional acts of violence with aggravated circumstance” and “illegal uses of weapon”, Lim Bunheng said.

“I just want to affirm that this case involved several complexities that we need time for a comprehensive investigation that I could not comment further on our next move,” he said.

Preah Sihanouk Provincial Police Chief Chuon Narin said he had not received any warrants to arrest the men – including Rear Admiral Has Sothea.

“Please understand that I have not received anything yet because an investigating judge is working on the case now,” General Chuon Narin said. “I am only standing by to execute any orders from the magistracy.”

The sixteen Chinese nationals were brought via speed boat to Sihanoukville and are being detained at the provincial prison, with Chuon Narin refusing to explain why they were being kept in detention, only to say that both sides caused injuries.

He added that “the three Khmer individuals” had been sent to a hospital, again unsure of their activities thereafter.

Ream Naval Base came to Has Sothea’s defense on Thursday, denying news reports that he had fled an arrest warrant, but did not provide details of the senior naval staffer’s whereabouts or if Has Sothea was still performing his duties at the base.

“Commander of the Royal Cambodian Navy’s [Ream] Naval Base [Ouk Seyha] has already understood the facts and conducted a comprehensive assessment into the case of violence against Mr. Has Sothea and his friends,” read the statement.

“The Base stands itself ready to collaborate with a competent authority to bring Mr. Has Sothea in to testify at the summons of the authorities and the court officials,” it added.

Am Sam Ath, deputy director for monitoring at rights group Licadho, did not want to comment on the specifics of the case, but said there shouldn’t be double standards when it came to legal procedures involving criminal acts conducted by military personnel.

“Legal enforcement needs to be done with transparency and equality in front of the law and the wrongdoers need to be prosecuted in accordance with the law,” Am Sam Ath said.

The Ream Naval Base made international headlines last year when the New York-based Wall Street Journal, citing senior American military sources, reported that the base was part of a Sino-Cambodian “secret deal” to allow the Chinese Navy access to use the base.

The Chinese and Cambodian governments have vehemently denied the report, insisting that there was no secret deal to allows Chinese military personnel on Cambodian soil.