Shooting Death of Popular Activist Roils Cambodia

Shock and sorrrow as Kem Ley is gunned down in Phnom Penh amid rising political tensions.

Slain activist Kem Ley’s body lies in the Buddhist temple Watt Bodhiyarame in the Cambodin capital Phnom Penh, on July 10, 2016.

UPDATED at  11.55 P.M. EST on 2016-07-10

Cambodian civil society expressed shock on Sunday at the shooting death of an activist and critic of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government, a killing that came amid months of political tensions as the country faces elections next year.

Kem Ley, 46, researcher and leader of the advocacy group Khmer for Khmer was shot two times in a store at a gas station in the capital Phnom Penh. The ministry of interior said he was shot dead at 8:50 a.m. Sunday local time.

Phnom Penh Police Commissioner Chuoun Sovann told a news conference that authorities arrested a suspect near a Buddhist temple in the capital's Tonle Bassac precinct. The man, whose name was not disclosed, fled the scene of the shooting carrying a gun, he said.

"We examined what happened at the crime scene, and after conducting a forensic examination of the evidence confiscated from the suspect, confirmed that the suspect  is a murderer who killed Mr. Kem Ley,” said Chuon Savann.

Hun Sen took to social media to condemn the slaying and order an investigation.

"I pay my condolences over the death of Kem Ley, who was shot by a gunman," Hun Sen said on his Facebook page. "I condemn this brutal act.

Ou Virak, founder of the NGO “Future Forum,” said Cambodia has lost “a hero in the hearts of all Khmer. “

“We lost a good human being who has participated in social and political activities to push Cambodia to move forward,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service.

An official of the domestic human rights group LICADHO, Am Sam Ath, told RFA that his and other watchdog groups demand that the government handle the investigation carefully.

“We of civil society insist that authorities investigate the motive of this shooting death properly to dispel suspicion that the killing of Kem Ley is political,” he said.

Official account doubted

The executive director of  the Cambodian Commission on Human Rights, Chak Sopheap, called on civil society to step up activism and not be cowed by the killing of Kem Ley.

“I hope that all the citizens will continue participating in social-political activities despite what has happened,” she said. “It is only our participation to ensure that Cambodia can develop human rights and democracy.”

Political tension between long-ruling strongman Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party and the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) has been intensifying this year as the parties prepare to contest local elections in 2017 and a general election in 2018.

Reuters quoted Kem Ley's pregnant wife, Pou Rachana, as saying “I don't know what happened. Somebody just called me and said that he's been shot."

Thousands of supporters followed a procession taking Kem Ley’s body to a Buddhist pagoda in Phnom Penh, where his coffin was covered with flowers and fruit.

University student Kem Kim from Kampong Cham province told RFA he did not accept the police account of the killing.

“I want to find justice for him and find the real murderer.  I do not believe that he owed other people money.  I don’t believe it,” he said as he fought back tears.

A widely quoted analyst, Kem Ley had appeared on a RFA Khmer Service call-in show to discuss a report by the London-based NGO Global Witness documenting how Hun Sen and his family have amassed a $200 million fortune. The Hun family has dismissed the report.

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Yanny Hin. Written in English by Paul Eckert.