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Eight Chinese remain missing from boat accident last week near Cambodia

Authorities are still unable to find eight of the 41 Chinese passengers who were aboard a small fishing boat when it sank last week off the Cambodian coast near the port of Sihanoukville, police told RFA Tuesday.

Sihanoukville Police Chief Chuon Narin told RFA’s Khmer Service that officers are conducting an investigation with the help of the survivors of Thursday’s sinking.

“It happened in Cambodian waters, so we are questioning [the survivors],” he said, refusing to provide additional details. 

Three of the passengers lost their lives in the accident. Cambodian rescuers saved 21 others, and another nine were rescued by a fishing boat in Vietnamese waters, AFP reported.

Sihanoukville has become a hotbed for human trafficking, with victims from across the region. According to AFP, the surviving passengers said they had been promised 10,000 to 20,000 yuan (U.S. $1,405 – $2,809) to work in Cambodia for 10 to 20 days.

Police should be more transparent about the search and rescue operation, Cheap Sotheary, provincial coordinator for the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association, told RFA.

“I pity the victims. I haven’t received any information,” said Cheap Sotheary. “The Sihanoukville provincial administration hasn’t shared any information about the rescue or the victims’ reasons for coming to Cambodia. 

“Were they cheated or did they come here for tourism?” she said. 

Two of the survivors pulled from the water told AFP that they were coming to Cambodia for work and described their ordeal.

“Because of the pandemic I was unemployed and stayed at home for the past year,” said Zhu Pingfan. “When I was in the sea, I felt hopeless. I twice thought about giving up, but after a second thought, I decided I should persist for a bit longer.”

Huang Qian said she was not aware how far she’d have to travel for the work.

“Our boss said he would introduce us to a better job, but we didn’t know it was that far,” she told AFP.

“Four days after we got on the boat, the food ran out. After six or seven days, no water either. Around the 10th day, we got a bit more food and water and we changed boats. We had two bags of instant noodles and then no more food,” said Huang.

When the boat went down, she survived by holding onto floating debris for hours. 

“We sat on an ice bucket, floating. Later we saw a fishing boat, so we called for help and they threw a rope to us. I think I will never get on a boat again in the future,” Huang said.

Chinese sinking survivors Huang Qian [left] and Zhu Pingfan, 41, lie on their beds at a hospital in Sihanoukville, southwestern Cambodia, Sept. 24, 2022. Photo: AFP

Immigration raids

Sihanoukville, a popular tourist hub and gambling center, attracts many foreign workers, some of whom are in the country illegally. On Sept. 22, the day the small fishing boat carrying the Chinese passengers went down, local authorities were wrapping up three days of raids in which they questioned around 900 foreign nationals. They found that many were in the country illegally or were involved in criminal activities including trafficking, a statement from the province said.

In a raid of eight buildings, authorities investigated 500 foreigners from 10 nationalities, 300 of whom were found to be in Cambodia illegally. Many of the detained workers were involved in illegal gambling, human trafficking and prostitution, the investigation found. Five suspects were sent to the court on trafficking charges.

In a separate set of raids, police investigated another 414 foreigners, 168 of whom were found to be in Cambodia without documents. They issued fines to 208 others, while 19 Chinese and Cambodians were detained on charges of illegal detention or kidnapping.

U.S Ambassador Patrick Murphy, who was visiting Sihanoukville, expressed his concern Saturday in a tweet, saying he was “taking a moment to reflect on much human tragedy in this area. Unsafe boats, trafficking, scam centers, abandoned buildings, a casino glut. There’s a real need for broad action to address the storm clouds here.”

Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.