|The Cambodia Daily , Story of the Month, April 2007|
By John Maloy and Pin Sisovann
Krakor district, Pursat province - Witnesses to Monday's killing of three ethnic Vietnamese people on a fishing boat, one of whom was a five-months pregnant woman, on Tonle Sap lake have claimed that a Fisheries Administration official opened fire without provocation, sparking a massacre.
The dead-boat owner, Nguyen Yang Kuor, 28, his pregnant wife Yor Thy Bong, 26 and hired hand Khai Yang Hour, 21-were laid to rest Wednesday morning. The married couple left behind two daughters, aged 2 and 5, the younger of which was in the boat when her parents were gunned down.
A few hours after the funeral, the small blue fishing boat on which the three died remained tethered to Nguyen Yang Kuor's family home, which is in a floating fishing community out on the Tonle Sap lake in Pursat province.
The tip of the vessel's stern alone was splintered and pockmarked by at least five bullet strikes-some having bored completely through the 5-cm-thick hull. Splatters of dried blood clung to its weathered planks.
According to a report by Kompong Luong commune police in Krakor district, the Fisheries Administration officials involved in the killings reported that they were attempting to confiscate equipment from fishermen in a protected area controlled by the state.
The attempted confiscation angered the fishermen who then rammed the Fisheries vessel with their boat, knocking a Fisheries official into the water. The fishermen then tried to attack the official in the water with knives, forcing a Fisheries official to open fire.
All Fisheries officials in the area fled immediately after the shooting, which took place around 10 am on a sunny Monday morning.
In response to the killings, enraged relatives of the dead set the commune's Fisheries Administration office ablaze around midday, police and eyewitnesses said.
The tragedy didn't end there: The floating Fisheries office burned loose of its moorings and drifted into a nearby home, the resulting inferno leaving that family with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
Nguyen Vann Deuy, the brother of slain boat owner Nguyen Yang Kuor, has been charged with destruction of property by the Pursat Provincial Court.
Witnesses from the floating village, however, tell a very different story of events that lead to Monday's triple shooting.
Fisherman Lam Yav, 48, insisted that the deceased were not within the state protected zone, and that Fisheries officials rammed their two small fishing boats -roughly 4 meters long by 1 meter wide-with a much larger Fisheries boat, which villagers said was about 12 meters long and 2 meters wide.
The collisions sank one of the fishing boats, which was being used to hold fishing equipment. The Fisheries officials then pulled away and fired two warning shots into the air before proceeding on to Lam Yav's vessel, which he said was a kilometer away.
On reaching Lam Yav's boat, the officials insisted that his nets were in the protected zone and promptly pulled up 100 meters of net and cut it with a knife. Lam Yav maintained that he was not doing anything illegal.
Shortly after Lam Yav's net had been cut, Nguyen Yang Kuor's boat began making its way in the general direction of the Fisheries boat.
Lam Yav said that when the two were about 50 meters apart, a Fisheries officer fired three or four shots with an AK-47 assault rifle, one of which struck the driver of the boat, hired hand Khai Yang Hour, in the head, killing him.
Lam Yav said he is unsure whether the Fisheries officials had given any warning because he could not hear over the din of boat engines, but added that the fishing boat was in no way posing a threat to the larger Fisheries vessel. At no point did a Fisheries official end up in the water, as is claimed in the police report, Lam Yav said.
With the driver dead at the steering wheel, the boat plowed forward out of control towards the Fisheries boat. When the fishing boat was practically alongside the government vessel it was raked with gunfire, Lam Yav said.
He claimed that there were four Fisheries officials with AK-47s pointed in the direction of the fishing boat, but he was not sure if they all opened fired.
Too many bullets were fired too quickly for him to keep count, he said.
The pregnant Yor Thy Bong tumbled into the lake after being shot once through the head and once in the thigh. Her husband Nguyen Yang Kuor also took a fatal bullet to the head, as well as being shot in the leg and torso.
The couple's 2-year-old daughter was also in the boat, but escaped injury. So did 17-year-old Nguyen Thy Boerg, another hired hand, who jumped off the boat as it was sprayed with bullets.
Nguyen Thy Boerg, speaking in Vietnamese translated by Lam Yav, said there were no words of anger exchanged between her boat and the Fisheries officials, nor did she hear any warning before the driver was killed.
The Fisheries officials did shout at them as the out-of-control boat got about 15 meters from the Fisheries boat, but they could not act in time with the driver dead. The fishing boat struck the Fisheries boat as a torrent of bullets was unleashed.
Top Chansereyvuth, chief prosecutor at the Pursat Provincial Court, said by telephone Thursday that arrest warrants have been issued for five Fisheries officials suspected of being among the shooters, but added that it was still unclear who among the five had fired on the fishing boat.
He added that there has been one eyewitness report from a Fisheries official who did not participate in the shooting that supports the version of events initially reported by police.
Top Chansereyvuth said that he has not yet determined which sequence of events is true.
"I have not yet decided who started the violence," he said, adding that he expects to complete his investigation by Sunday.
Fisheries Administration Director-General Nao Thuok and his deputy Sam Nov said they were too busy to speak with a reporter Thursday.
But with the shock of the killings still fresh in their minds Wednesday, residents of the floating fishing village were at a loss to explain how such tragic events could have come to pass.
Lam Yav said that violence of this sort has never broken out between Fisheries Administration officials and local fishermen before.
"In the past [officials] used to claim that the fishermen violated the fishing lot, but they'd just demand some money or demand some gas," he said.
"This time I am left wondering: 'Why did they shoot in this case?'"