As mourning for popular pundit Kem Ley draws to its close, the investigation into his murder turns up no new leads, and key witnesses and supporters go into hiding, Cambodia appears to be following a script that should now be familiar to all Cambodians.
“This is not the first time intellectuals, patriots, and activists who fought to rescue our country have been slain,” Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) President Sam Rainsy said on RFA’s Special Discussion Show. “I have noted that the slaying of activists follows the same well-orchestrated style set by the authorities.”
While Sam Rainsy didn’t directly accuse Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government of carrying out the fatal attack, he recited a litany of killings that he claims all have similar hallmarks. These killings would be impossible to carry out with official cover, he said.
“Those include the grenade attack [on an opposition political rally] on March 30, 1997; the killings of well-known union leader Chea Vichea, and two other union leaders, namely Ros Sovanareth and Hy Vuthy; as well as Chut Wutty and the recent case of Dr. Kem Ley,” he said during the July 23 broadcast.
A Cambodian court charged a former soldier named Oeuth Ang with premeditated murder for the execution-style killing. Authorities have said that Kem Ley was killed over an outstanding $3,000 debt to Oueth Ang, who gave his name as Chuob Samlab, a Khmer name meaning “meet to kill.”
“In such cases the authorities have always failed to find the real perpetrators. Scapegoats are always hired or threatened to cover up their mess,” Sam Rainsy told RFA. “Only those who have the highest authority would be the ones who ordered such killings.”
A pair of witnesses to the killing of Kem Ley are seeking asylum in a third country because they fear for their safety, one of the witnesses told RFA.
Chum Huor and Chum Huot, twins who were close to Kem Ley, became afraid after they posted criticisms about the investigation on their Facebook pages and gave accounts of Kem Ley’s murder to the U.S. embassy. They filed their application for asylum with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Chum Huot said.
While authorities have a suspect in custody, they told RFA they have hit a dead end.
“I have learned that the perpetrator is very stubborn,” said Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak. “He now doesn’t even recognize his own mother. Because he is uncooperative, our investigation is difficult.”
Senior CNRP lawmaker Eng Chhai Eang told RFA it is time to get outside help in the investigation.
“Given the location of the crime scene I don’t think the investigation should be that difficult,” he said. “When the murderer is uncooperative, the authorities should not rely only on him for answers. They should look into other relevant sources of evidence.”
He added: “If they were really facing difficulties, why didn’t they seek assistance from experts in such criminal investigations? I believe that if the authorities were of genuine will, they would ask for help from foreign friends.”
Smelling “a rat”
But Buntenh, president of the Independent Monk Network for Social Justice and a member of the Kem Ley Funeral Committee, told RFA that he feared for his safety after authorities went to his home village searching for his identification documents.
“The threat is significant,” he said in an RFA Today interview, saying local authorities had asked his parents for his ID without his knowledge.
“My parents then smelled a rat,” he said. “They rushed to the village office to seek some answers. The village officials told them that they took the documents so that they could make the identification card for me. I take that as a threat, for no third person is allowed to act on my behalf to make my ID card.”
Sam Rainsy was believed to be the target of the 1997 grenade attack, but he was spared when his bodyguard, Han Muny, shielded him from the blast. Han Muny was among those who died.
While Sam Rainsy stayed in the country then, he later went into self-imposed exile following his removal from parliament in November 2015 by Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party because of a warrant issued for his arrest in an old defamation case.
Kem Ley’s killing has gripped Cambodia, with an estimated two million people turning out on Sunday to view his funeral procession as it moved from Watt Bodhiyaram in the capital of Phnom Penh to his home village in the southwestern province of Takeo.
While the government claims his death came over a debt, few in Cambodia believe that.
Who would benefit from Kem Ley’s death?
And while the average Cambodian doesn’t believe the authorities, government-aligned news outlets say they know who is to blame – the CNRP.
Over the past few days CPP-aligned media have offered up a new script for the slaying, insinuating that the CNRP and the party’s deputy leader Kem Sokha are behind Kem Ley’s death.
“The question is—in this situation—who is it that would be happy with the result?” said an article on Kem Ley’s death posted to the popular and CPP-aligned Fresh News website early this week.
“There’s only the opposition party, because they have gathered together to squeeze and put a vise on the government [by saying] that because of poor control of public order, a homicide easily happened in the city.”
Authored by “A Special Group,” the piece was quickly shared on Facebook by Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan. It argued that Kem Ley’s slaying had only caused problems for Hun Sen, and that acting CNRP leader Kem Sokha had grown suspicious of the analyst.
While Hun Sen ordered a thorough investigation into the killing and announced a large-scale campaign to strengthen security and social order in the aftermath of the murder, his own remarks seem to have anticipated the report in the CPP-friendly media.
“This is a loss. It badly affects the reputation of the government,” he said on July 11. “Who will benefit from such a thing when the government is talking about peace and security?”
Sam Rainsy dismissed the pro-CPP reports and the prime minister’s remarks, telling RFA they also follow an old script.
“I’m so accustomed to the ill rhetoric by the Hun Sen government,” he said. “The government even accused me of throwing the hand grenades to kill myself because I wanted fame. I was accused of hiring people to throw the grenades at me!”
It’s the same with Kem Ley, he added.
“Likewise, as in Kem Ley’s murder case, they are trying to cover up their mess by blaming the CNRP for the killing,” he said. “That’s a very absurd and cheap tactic.”
It appears that the CPP wants to plant the idea that Kem Sokha had Kem Ley killed because he feared being usurped within the CNRP. (While both men have a similar name in Khmer, they are not related.) Kem Sokha was named the CNRP’s acting president after Sam Rainsy left the country.
Divide and conquer
It’s a notion that Sam Rainsy has disputed, saying Hun Sen and the CPP are seeking to divide the opposition.
“On June 3, 2016, Kem Ley and his wife met with Kem Sokha at the CNRP headquarters,” Sam Rainsy said. “He said we shared the same values. We loved our country and people. We therefore needed to work together for the next elections. This made the others worry. For this reason, they killed him.”
Once again, he said, this follows the old Hun Sen script, recalling a conversation in mid-2015 in which Hun Sen tried to get Sam Rainsy to break with Kem Sokha.
“Hun Sen approached me and said I was a person whom he found easy to work with,” he said. “He said he didn’t like working with Kem Sokha. He said if I disposed of Kem Sokha, I would be safe and sound and get everything I wanted.”
After Sam Rainsy spurned the offer, Hun Sen made a similar appeal to Kem Sokha, he said.
“He has reached out to Kem Sokha and asked him to dispose of me if he wanted to be safe and sound,” Sam Rainsy explained. “Hun Sen asked Kem Sokha to kick me out in the form of a coup within the party. However, Kem Sokha told Hun Sen that he wouldn’t do that. He has treated me as his life-and-death partner to rescue our nation. Kem Sokha has not followed what Hun Sen wanted.”
Although unable to turn the two opposition figures against each other, Hun Sen has still managed to keep Sam Rainsy out of Cambodia and has bottled up Kem Sokha.
Kem Sokha has been under virtual house arrest after heavily-armed police attempted to apprehend him in May after he refused to testify in a pair of defamation cases related to his alleged affair with a young hairdresser.
The CNRP and its supporters claim the charges are a trumped-up attempt to damage the party ahead of elections slated for 2017 and 2018.
Without directly mentioning his name, Hun Sen warned in a speech last month that the government could arrest Kem Sokha at any time.
“It is just not the [right] time yet,” Hun Sen said during a speech at the Cambodian customs department. “You said that Hun Sen is afraid of losing the election, but you are in jail forever. You have no way out. I am telling you, the prisoner, do not be too insolent!”
Sam Rainsy accused the government of fabricating the charges.
“Kem Sokha has also been persecuted over fabricated and alleged personal issues,” he said. “The CPP is trying to jail both of us.”