Where is Khem Sophath?

Neil Loughlin

Khem Sophath was 15 when he disappeared. He was last seen by a friend bleeding from what appeared to be a gunshot wound to the chest. His friend, who was shot in the arm, was forced to leave Sophath and run for cover as Cambodian security forces fired into a crowd of striking garment workers in Phnom Penh on 3 January.

His family, poor farmers from Svay Rieng province, don’t expect him home. When I visited them in April they were preparing to hold the 100 days ceremony, a traditional Buddhist ritual to remember the dead. They had held his funeral in January.

The crackdown on 2 and 3 January left four other people dead and scores more injured; one man died of his injuries in May. The garment workers, who made clothes for brands including Adidas, Puma and Levi Strauss, had been calling for a living wage of $160 a month. After the strike was broken, 23 activists and workers were detained at a high security prison. On 30 May they were found guilty, on scant evidence, of inciting, instigating or committing acts of violence. They were given suspended sentences and prohibited from serving as union leaders. Garment workers’ wages have not gone up.

Human rights groups said in March that ‘there are reasonable grounds to believe that Khem Sophath might have been subjected to an enforced disappearance.’ According to the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, to which it acceded in June 2013, the Cambodian government is obliged to launch an investigation into what happened to Sophath. It has so far failed to act. This isn’t the first time that Cambodia’s security forces have been accused of disappearing people. The current government has a long history of using violence against its opponents with impunity.

Sophath’s family received an anonymous call shortly after his disappearance from somebody claiming he had been cremated at an army base in Kampong Speu. Remains were later found at a base and taken away by an opposition party activist who said he would hand them over to the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association, where I work. We have not received them. Police deny they are Sophath’s remains, but no forensic examination has been carried out. All we know is that after six months Sophath is still missing, and the chances of finding out what happened to him are slim.