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Rumors began to circulate even as the toxic waste was still being unloaded from the ship. A Phnom Penh pro-government newspaper, Sathearanak Mati (Public Opinion), apparently tipped off to the shipment, ran a front-page story in its December 5-6 edition with the headline: Which company imports building debris into Cambodia? It followed up with another story and photographs of the boat's unloading in its December 10-11 issue. While unsure of the content of the building debris, both stories noted that it could be harmful to the environment and that Customs officials were aware of this possibility. Another, more widely read, pro-government newspaper, Koh Santeapheap (Peace Island), was also onto the story by December 8. By that time, local Sihanoukville authorities were investigating.

People who feared the waste was radioactive approached the second deputy governor of Sihanoukville, Hing Sarin.38 He asked several acquaintances to look at the dumpsite, but the soldiers there refused them access, so he then ordered municipality environment and other officials to investigate. The officials soon told him that Customs, Camcontrol and port staff all denied any knowledge or responsibility, and he reported the issue to the First Deputy Governor Khim Bo.39 By this time, a district police chief, Prum Sokhan, had been dispatched with a team of police on December 8 to bring a sample of the waste to his superior.40 On December 11, the minister of environment, Mok Mareth, and one of his officials, tipped off by Sihanoukville environment officials and by newspaper reports, went there from Phnom Penh to investigate. The minister publicly said that the waste could be toxic or radioactive and warned people to stay away from the dumpsite. However, the other environment official assessed (correctly, as it turned out) that the waste most likely contained heavy metals such as mercury.

In the absence of hard information about the content and dangers of the waste, an alarmed populace drew its own conclusions. By the time the minister of environment warned people to stay away from the waste and news of Pich Sovann's death swept through Sihanoukville, panic was setting in. Fueled by rumors that the waste was radioactive and could kill everyone in a wide radius, people began fleeing the city. (The exodus later peaked around December 21, when at least four people were killed and eighteen injured in crashes as thousands fled the town by road, down the highway, past the dumpsite, in heavy rain.) Most of those who fled were the more wealthy, from Sihanoukville town, rather than villagers near the dumpsite. Of course, we felt afraid, but we had nowhere to go, said one villager. It was rice harvest time and, even if they were sick, they had work to do.


Like virtually everyone in town, the staff of the Sihanoukville branch of the human rights group Licadho heard the rumors of radioactive waste. They made a few preliminary inquiries, in line with their human rights mandate.

Licadho was established in 1992, a year after the Paris peace agreement which aimed to end Cambodia's decade-long civil war. The Paris agreement, signed by all Cambodian factions, neighboring countries and most of the world's major powers, pledged peace, democracy and respect for human rights for Cambodians and paved the way for United Nations-sponsored elections. Since then, Licadho has grown into one of the country's largest nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), with a total of seventeen offices in fifteen provinces and a headquarters in Phnom Penh. It employs 121 full-time staff and has 183 volunteers. Its mandate and activities are wide-ranging, including providing human rights and legal education to civilians and government, police and military officials; monitoring the human rights climate, including the investigation of rights violations; giving medical, financial and other assistance to victims of violations; advising victims how to seek redress from the police, courts or other authorities; advocating on behalf of victims to the relevant authorities; visiting Cambodian prisons to provide medical treatment and arrange legal representation of inmates as needed. Licadho's work has attracted funding from foreign donors, including the Asia Foundation (U.S.) and Norad (Norway), and other international recognition. In 1998 Licadho was jointly awarded, along with fellow Cambodian human rights group ADHOC, the Roger Baldwin Medal of Liberty Award, given by the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union.

At the time of the waste dumping, Licadho's Sihanoukville office was well-known to local officials. Its staff had given training on the law and human rights to local police and other officials, and regularly dealt with court, prison, and other authorities in the course of their work. Its four staff included Kim Sen, coordinator of the office, and Meas Minear, an investigator. Both had worked for Licadho for more than three years, most of that time in Sihanoukville, and both were married with families and homes in the town.

On December 16, 1998, the day that Pich Sovann died, the Licadho staff telephoned a municipality environment official and unsuccessfully tried to find Sovann's family. The next day, they met with another local aid agency to talk about possible medical help for villagers near the dumpsite.41

The following day, Friday, December 18, about fifty people, most of them city market vendors, came to Licadho's office. They were angry and worried that the poisoned rubbish would kill them and their families or, if not, would frighten off townsfolk and tourists, killing their market businesses. In front of them, Kim Sen telephoned Second Deputy Governor Hing Sarin, who told him to tell the vendors that the municipality was taking action to investigate and resolve the waste issue. Kim Sen, faced with a room full of angry people, said he was not sure if that would satisfy them. According to Kim Sen, Hing Sarin then suggested that, if the people wanted to make their concerns known, they had the right to send a petition to the municipality. Kim Sen agreed to this, and their conversation ended. A short time later, Kim Sen again rang the deputy governor, this time on behalf of two men who claimed to be sick because they had touched the waste. Hing Sarin, in a Human Rights Watch interview in March 1999, confirmed the basic tenor of Kim Sen's version of events but with one key difference B he denied that he had suggested the writing of the petition.42 Human Rights Watch notes, however, that the sending of petitions to the authorities by disgruntled citizens is a completely legal and common practice in Cambodia.

After the phone call, Kim Sen told the market vendors that Hing Sarin had promised that action was being taken. Kim Sen also explained that they could write a petition if they were still not satisfied, and the vendors supported this idea. The vendors said they wanted the waste removed from Cambodia, so Kim Sen asked his Licadho colleague, Meas Minear, to draft the wording of the petition. Meas Minear wrote a brief petition addressed to the municipality asking that the waste be removed to avoid danger to their lives or businesses. A few people put their thumbprints to the petition in the Licadho office before they decided to take the document away, photocopy it, and collect more thumbprints. Kim Sen told them that if they returned the document on Monday morning, Licadho would send it on their behalf to the municipality office.

Public Anger Mounts

That night, the powerful first deputy governor of Sihanoukville, Khim Bo, went on local television to try to calm residents.43 Implying that the Sihanoukville authorities had known nothing of the waste importation deal, he said they became suspicious after the material was dumped. An official committee had been formed to handle the matter, and he promised strong action against the importers. Warning people not to go near the dumpsite, he said he was sure the waste was dangerous but was unsure of how dangerous. No deaths had been attributed to the waste, he said. In his television appearance, Khim Bo unintentionally heightened tensions. People listened to what he said, but they did not understand. They were shocked and panicked, said one official. They did not believe him; they were angry, said another.44

The next day was a Saturday, but Kim Sen and Meas Minear still went to work, with the intention of painting their office. In the morning, they were visited by a smaller group of vendors who, having already collected more than 700 thumbprints, returned the petition. Then another vendor, Khieu Piseth, arrived to say that some market people now wanted to hold a demonstration and wanted Licadho to go to and talk to them. Kim Sen explained that this was a matter for the authorities, not Licadho. He said citizens had the right to demonstrate, but they had to do so according to the law: they had to notify the authorities, explaining when, where and why they wanted to demonstrate. For this, they needed a plan and had to write a letter to the authorities.45 As an example, Kim Sen produced several old documents relating to a children's rights march, part of a Global March Against Child Labor held throughout the world, in Sihanoukville in February 1998. The documents included a letter of permission from the authorities and a map of the march route. Human Rights Watch notes that Kim Sen's advice was correct and according to the law.46

During this conversation, two journalists from Public Opinion, the first newspaper to write about the waste, arrived at Licadho's office. They talked to the vendors and human rights staff, arranged to photocopy the petition, and apparently tape-recorded some of the discussion. One of the journalists took a photograph of Kim Sen, Meas Minear and Khieu Piseth sitting down and talking. (This photograph is now considered key evidence that Kim Sen, Meas Minear and Khieu Piseth were responsible for the subsequent violent riots. However, even Public Opinion, which published articles critical of Licadho, acknowledged that Kim Sen only spoke about a lawfully approved, nonviolent demonstration at this meeting.)

Concerned that an unlawful demonstration might break out, Kim Sen telephoned the local district police chief, Prum Sokhan, to ask his advice.47 The policeman, according to Kim Sen, said he would check with his boss, and that Kim Sen should call him back in half an hour. When Kim Sen rang back, Prum Sokhan said that the demonstration had already started at the house of Khim Bo, the first deputy governor. The police chief asked Kim Sen to go there to try to help resolve the situation. Prum Sokhan partially confirms Kim Sen's account of the two phone calls, with some differences.48

Protests: Day 1 (December 19)

While Kim Sen spoke to Prum Sokhan by telephone from Licadho's office, a demonstration was breaking out at the city market. Some 300 to 400 people, carrying banners denouncing government corruption and the waste dumping, marched to First Deputy Governor Khim Bo's house. Kim Sen and Prum Sokhan went there but did not talk to each (the latter was busy talking to other officials). The police chief tried to negotiate with the some of the protesters, asking them if they had permission to demonstrate. We have no permission, we have no leaders. But if the waste is not removed, we will die, was the angry reply.49 Soon, the protesters marched off down the road. According to Kim Sen, several of them said they were going to fight Licadho; they blamed the human rights group for not doing enough to help them. Kim Sen returned to his office, just before the protesters marched past. He spoke to several protesters, explaining that only the government, not the human rights group, had the power to take action over the toxic waste.50 At this point, Public Opinion journalists took another photograph showing Kim Sen standing outside his office as demonstrators go past. (The authorities now consider this photo as evidence that the demonstrators stopped to take orders from Kim Sen.)

The protest grew in size, up to about 1,000 people. They went to the Customs office, yelling at its staff, and then to Camcontrol (the import inspection agency). Protesters pulled down the Camcontrol sign and smashed the windows with stones. Police and military police on hand were outnumbered and could not calm the crowd. The protesters returned to Customs but began to disperse in the mid-afternoon. During this first day of protests, Kim Sen and another of his Licadho colleagues (not Meas Minear) monitored the protest, following and watching from a distance. At no time did any of the police or military police present allege that Kim Sen was leading or inciting the rally.51 After the demonstration ended, Kim Sen phoned Licadho's Phnom Penh office to inform them of events.

That night, Deputy Governor Khim Bo again went on local television, along with the local hospital director, Sok Pheng. Khim Bo implied that he supported the public demonstrations because they helped to back up the municipality's request to the Phnom Penh government for action to be taken. AI and the [municipal] authority are very much in favor of the spirit of the protests because it is the concern and responsibility of the government, as well as the municipal authority, to [protect] the livelihood and health of our people, Khim Bo said. He announced that the government Council of Ministers had, the day before, decided to remove the waste from Cambodia and prosecute people involved in its importation. Indicating that this would take some time, he said that the removal required research and technical expertise. In the meantime, anyone who still had any of the waste should return it, and the municipality would strictly cordon off the dumpsite.

Sok Pheng, meanwhile, said that the death of port worker Pich Sovann was not related to the waste. Regarding people who had fallen sick, Sok Pheng said the hospital did not have adequate blood testing facilities but, based on their symptoms, did not believe that any of them had been poisoned.52 This television broadcast, like Khim Bo's first one the night before, was apparently not well received.53

Protests: Day 2 (December 20)

The next morning, the authorities, in a bid to negotiate an end to the protests, called a meeting with six or seven demonstration leaders. Kim Sen and Meas Minear were clearly not put in that category as they were not invited.54 Khim Bo and other officials addressed the group. The meeting was brief because Khim Bo had to leave to greet Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Sar Kheng and other senior Phnom Penh officials dispatched to investigate the Sihanoukville waste dumping who arrived that morning. Around the same time, protests broke out again.

The second day's demonstrations began at a garment factory, not at the market, according to police. According to other witnesses, the December 20 demonstrators were largely a different group of people and did not include many of the market vendors who had protested the day before.

It was Sunday, but Kim Sen and Meas Minear went to work, to check if there were any more demonstrations. Going to have a look around town, they found a group of several hundred youths throwing stones at the office of the economic police (responsible for enforcement of economic regulations) near the port. The two Licadho workers later established that the crowd had already done the same thing to the Customs office. Eventually, the crowd worked their way toward the municipality headquarters, where Khim Bo, Minister of Interior and Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng and other officials were meeting, and police tried to stop them with a water cannon. At one point, a military police chief asked Kim Sen to try to find a group of protest leaders to meet with Sar Kheng. Kim Sen replied that he was only there to observe and did not know who the leaders were.55 A few protesters apparently slipped through the security cordon and accosted Sar Kheng, yelling at him,56 but most of them bypassed the heavily protected municipality headquarters. Instead, they targeted the offices of Kamsab, the state-owned Cambodian shipping and brokerage agency down the road.57

The Kamsab offices are housed in a small, beachfront hotel owned by the shipping agency. Here, events turned ugly, as the hotel was virtually demolished by hundreds of protesters. Storming inside, they grabbed beds, televisions, air conditioners, anything they could find, and threw them out the windows. Below, other demonstrators collected the debris and burned it in the street, adding other items, including electricity generators, cars and motorbikes, to the flames. One young man was fatally injured when hit by falling debris. In the face of the full-blown riot, the police were virtually powerless and stood watching, along with Kim Sen and Meas Minear. Kim Sen moved closer to the fracas at one stage, to check whether the fatally wounded man was receiving medical treatment. After more than an hour of rampage at Kamsab, the mob left, heading for governor Khim Bo's house up the road.

Afterward, Kim Sen met one of the Kamsab managers, whom he knew. They talked for a while, along with a group of police and military police. At no point did the manager or any of the police accuse Kim Sen of orchestrating or inciting the vandalism. Indeed, the manager gave Kim Sen a ride into town, and the pair arranged to meet for lunch later.58

At Khim Bo's house, as at Kamsab, the situation got out of control. The house was vacant, as the deputy governor was with Interior Minister Sar Kheng at the municipality office, and his wife and children reportedly jumped the fence and ran away when the demonstrators arrived. Outnumbered police attempted to control a crowd of some 500 people gathered in front of the residence's tall fence and locked gates. Surging back and forth, protesters broke through the police line, ran up to the fence, and threw stones at the house windows before being pushed back. This was repeated for at least fifteen minutes, until the protesters finally smashed their way through the gates. Khim Bo's Toyota Landcruiser vehicle was pushed into the street, overturned and set afire. Other people stormed his house, destroying or looting property that reportedly included a large sum of cash in two safes or cabinets.59 Less than ten people were arrested by police or military police in or near the house.

According to Kim Sen's account, he had just been dropped off in town by the Kamsab manager when a passing friend told him of what was happening at Khim Bo's house. Kim Sen went straight there and saw the governor's vehicle burning. Kim Sen remained there, more than one hundred meters from the house, for about five minutes. As a rumor spread that there were munitions inside the burning vehicle, and that it would explode, people ran away. Kim Sen left the scene, getting a ride from a friend. Meas Minear, his Licadho colleague, separately arrived at the scene with a human rights worker from another organization whom he had met outside Kamsab. He stopped his motorcycle near a petrol station at least 150 meters from Khim Bo's house and watched for about half an hour.60 During that time, he met another acquaintance, who confirms having seen him there, drinking a bottle of water and watching the riot. Meas Minear, like Kim Sen, decided to leave when people began running away.

The protesters eventually moved on, apparently intending to attack the nearby homes of the hospital chief and the port authority chief. A group of military police blocked the road and fired warning shots over the heads of the protesters, who finally dispersed.61 The demonstrations, except for a small one at Bettrang commune the next day, were over.

38 In Cambodia, each province or municipality has a governor and a first, second and third deputy governor. These heavily politicized positions are allocated between the two major parties, the Cambodian People=s Party (CPP) and Funcinpec.

39 Human Rights Watch interview with Hing Sarin, Sihanoukville, March 25, 1999.

40 Prum Sokhan fell seriously sick two weeks later, an illness he attributes to the waste. Human Rights Watch interview with Prum Sokhan, March 16, 1999.

41 Human Rights Watch interviews with Kim Sen and Meas Minear, Phnom Penh, March 5 and 8, 1999.

42 Hing Sarin=s recollection (in a March 25, 1999 interview with Human Rights Watch) was that he received one, not two, phone calls from Kim Sen. They talked about people being unhappy about the waste and that some people might be sick because of it. Hing Sarin confirms he asked Kim Sen to assure the people that the authorities would take action. However, the issue of a petition to the municipality was not discussed, according to Hing Sarin.

43 The Sihanoukville governor, Thoam Bun Sron (Funcinpec), was reportedly out of town at the time. Regardless, his deputy Khim Bo (CPP), who had been governor of Sihanoukville under the former State of Cambodia regime, is universally considered by local residents and officials to hold the most power. In 1995, Gov. Thoam Bun Sron publicly complained of his lack of power, saying that he Acan=t even get a letter signed@ without Khim Bo=s approval. (See Matthew Grainger and Moeun Chhean Nariddh, AGovernor hits out against CPP control,@ Phnom Penh Post, February 24-March 9, 1995.)

44 Human Rights Watch interviews with local officials, Sihanoukville, March 1999.

45 Human Rights Watch interviews with Kim Sen and Meas Minear, and separate interview with one of the market vendors present, March 1999.

46 Cambodia=s Constitution (1993) establishes citizens= rights to freedom of expression and association but also notes that the right to peaceful demonstration shall be exercised in accordance with the law. A 1991 law on demonstrations requires organizers to give to the local authorities three days= advance written notice of demonstrations. The authorities are empowered to refuse such a demonstration request if they consider that the protest is likely to Acause turmoil@ or be detrimental to Apublic tranquility, order and security@ (which are not specifically defined in the law).

47 The police chief and other officials, such as Sihanoukville court prosecutor Mourn Mith, had already heard rumors of demonstrations. Mourn Mith told Human Rights Watch on March 15, 1999 that he had met some people who wanted to protest. He told them it was a good idea but that first they had to get official permission. Meanwhile, Prum Sokhan said (March 16) that he also heard of possible demonstrations. ADay by day, the people were waiting for the government to take action, but there was no appropriate action.@ He added that the central government in Phnom Penh, not the Sihanoukville authorities, was slow to agree to residents= demands that the waste be removed. ASince the action of the government was late, the people lost confidence in the local authorities B this was the cause of the demonstrations,@ Prum Sokhan said.

48 Prum Sokhan told Human Rights Watch (March 16, 1999) that during their first phone call he asked Kim Sen to try to stop any demonstration because it would be unlawful. Prum Sokhan denied that he asked Kim Sen to telephone him back after he had checked with his boss, but Kim Sen did call back anyway. In the second call, it was Kim Sen who told Prum Sokhan that the demonstration had already started (not vice-versa), according to Prum Sokhan=s version of events. AI told Kim Sen to try to stop the demonstrators. I said I would go there in a few minutesYto help him,@ Prum Sokhan said. To Human Rights Watch questions, Prum Sokhan said that Kim Sen did not tell him where the demonstration was, and he did not ask [despite saying that he would go and meet him]. A few minutes later, according to Prum Sokhan=s account, he learned from other police that the demonstrators were at Khim Bo=s house, and he went there then. One of the market vendors who was present at Licadho when Kim Sen made the two phone calls was unable to throw any more light on their content for Human Rights Watch; he said that Kim Sen, in the confusion of dealing with many visitors, did not have time to tell the vendors what the policeman had said on the phone.

49 Human Rights Watch interview with Prum Sokhan, March 16, 1999.

50 According to two witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch, Kim Sen spoke to a only couple of people, and most of marchers walked straight past the Licadho office. Police chief Prum Sokhan said he did not see himself, but he heard from other police that the demonstration stopped at Licadho.

51 Police chief Prum Sokhan saw Kim Sen at the protest. Asked by Human Rights Watch whether Kim Sen looked like he was ordering, or merely watching, the demonstrators, Prum Sokhan said on March 16 that he Acould not tell.@

52 Human Rights Watch unofficial translation of the televised speeches.

53 The next day, municipality offices, including the television studio where the statements were recorded, were put on alert for possible attacks by demonstrators, according to officials.

54 The police selected the demonstration representatives from market vendors. They included Khieu Piseth, who said his wife relayed a request from a market policeman for him to attend.

55 A similar request (which got a similar answer) was made to staff of ADHOC, another human rights group which monitored the demonstrations.

56 Human Rights Watch interview with a witness, March 31, 1999.

57 There is no evidence that Kamsab was involved in the waste importation, but the protesters were in the mood to attack anything with a connection to shipping.

58 The manager confirmed this version of events in a March 25, 1999 Human Rights Watch interview. He said he watched the destruction of the hotel from nearby and never saw Kim Sen participating. Afterward, he heard some of the demonstrators shouting, ALet=s go to [Khim] Bo=s house.@ He met and talked to Kim Sen for a while and then gave him a ride into town in his car. He said Kim Sen was Aprobably@ in the car with him at the time that the attack started on Khim Bo=s house. Later in the day, they had lunch together.

59 It is unclear how many protesters actually entered the house. Two days later, military policemen who were witnesses told Human Rights Watch that about fifteen people had entered and looted the house. One said that it was not demonstrators who did this but robbers who took advantage of the situation. Other military policemen said that 3human rights people5 were at the demonstration but did not enter the house. Khim Bo reportedly told the court in a December 21 statement that U.S.$403,705 (which may include jewelry and other valuables) was taken from the house. Court officials later told Human Rights Watch that a total of U.S.$230,000 cash was stolen.

60 The other human rights worker told Human Rights Watch that he approached the scene but Meas Minear, afraid that his motorcycle would be stolen or damaged in the fracas, stayed a safe distance away.

61 This is believed to be the only time that the authorities fired shots during the two days of demonstrations. Throughout the protests, the authorities were very restrained, considerably more so than is often the case during demonstrations in Cambodia. The reasons for this are uncertain, but may include that the police and military police were never given direct orders to take hard action. Secondly, the authorities knew some of the demonstrators and may have even had sympathy for their cause. Witnesses say that the demonstrators verbally urged the police to support them. Also, some of the demonstrators, who included municipality employees or their relatives, knew, or were even friends with, some of the police.

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