U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia Willam Heidt has dismissed claims by Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen that Washington was behind the assassination in 2016 of prominent political analyst Kem Ley as “absurd” and “offensive,” and reiterated calls for an independent investigation into his death.
While speaking to supporters in Sydney on March 16 ahead of a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) hosted by Australia, Hun Sen claimed that U.S.-based RFA Khmer Service reporter Chun Chanboth—also known as Vuthy Huot—contacted his son, Lt. Gen. Hun Manet, and Lt. Gen. Mao Sophann to request their protection from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which the prime minister alleged was responsible for the murder of Kem Ley.
“You scold me [in your reporting] in order to satisfy the U.S., yet at the same time, you are afraid of being murdered by the Americans just like Kem Ley,” the Cambodian strongman said, referring to the popular commentator, who was gunned down in broad daylight in Phnom Penh on July 10, 2016—hours after discussing a report by London-based Global Witness detailing the wealth of Hun Sen’s family.
On Sunday, Heidt hit back at the prime minister, saying that to make such accusations against Washington on the eve of the ASEAN summit and on the soil of a steadfast American ally was “not a friendly act.”
“Those comments are both absurd and they are offensive to the United States,” he said.
“Everybody in Cambodia knows that we’ve been a strong, strong supporter of human rights and democracy. We’ve supported NGOs and groups, and we’ve supported those kinds of issues because it’s a thing we believe in.”
He noted that Washington had always called for an “open and transparent investigation” into Kem Ley’s death “so that people in Cambodia can believe in the results of that investigation and what happened.”
Though authorities later charged a former soldier with the murder and sentenced him to life in prison, many in Cambodia did not believe the government’s story that Kem Ley was killed by the man over a debt.
Heidt also noted that “there have been a string of these killings connected to political issues in Cambodia,” including a 1997 grenade attack on anti-government demonstrators that left 16 dead and the 2004 shooting death of union leader Chea Vichea, “and nobody ever really has a feeling that justice is done and that we know who is responsible.”
“And that’s why open, independent, transparent investigations are so important,” he added.
Claims against reporter
The U.S. Ambassador also called Hun Sen’s claims that Chun Chanboth feared an assassination attempt by American agents “silly” and “not even worth discussing.”
Chun Chanboth, who worked in Cambodia on assignment from RFA headquarters in Washington, left Cambodia in April 2017. RFA closed its operations in Cambodia in September amid a government crackdown on the media, and RFA reporters fled the country, fearing arrest.
Hun Sen said last week that Chun Chanboth had sent messages to Hun Manet via WhatsApp saying he feared that he would be murdered by agents from the U.S., who Cambodia’s government has accused of assisting the now-dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in trying to take over the country.
“Tens of thousands of journalists from every country in the world file stories every day in America—they write stories that are supportive of the American government and they write stories that are critical of the American government,” Heidt said Sunday.
“In America, we have the freest, most open media environment in the world, and I’m telling you, none of those journalists are afraid—not a one. This idea that Chun Chanboth is afraid of being in America or something, frankly it’s just silly … it’s not even worth discussing.”
On Monday, Cambodia’s Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan told RFA that “action will be taken” in response to Heidt’s remarks.
“Whatever Ambassador William Heidt says, he has to be held accountable and we will take action,” he said.
“I support what Prime Minister Hun Sen has said. He may have significant evidence to back up his claims.”
Phay Siphan also rejected Heidt’s call for an independent probe into Kem Ley’s murder, saying “the investigation has been fully carried out.”
“Whether Cambodia undertakes an investigation or not won’t be dictated by the ambassador of any country.”
Attempts to reach Ministry of Interior spokesperson Khieu Sopheak for comment on the likelihood of a new investigation into Kem Ley’s death went unanswered on Monday.
Also on Monday, Cambodian-Australian lawmaker Hong Lim—a member of the Victorian Legislative Assembly—revealed that he had received an anonymous death threat after helping to lead protests against Hun Sen’s ongoing crackdown on human rights in the lead up to his participation in this weekend’s ASEAN summit.
Lim organized an effigy-burning of Hun Sen in Victoria’s capital Melbourne ahead of the summit, despite threats the Cambodian prime minister made last month to use violence against anyone who dared do so.
The lawmaker received an anonymous letter last week warning him that he and his family—as well as Kem Ley’s widow Bou Rachana and her family, which recently relocated to Australia with Lim’s help—would be “shot dead” like the late political commentator, and calling them the “dogs of the Australian government.”
Lim went ahead and led more than 1,000 Cambodian-Australians in another rally against Hun Sen in Sydney on Saturday, again burning the Cambodian prime minister’s likeness.
The Australian lawmaker told RFA Monday that he was proud to take part in the weekend’s protests, but said that he fears for his life and that of his family.
“We have already reported this to the federal police of Australia,” he said.
“The police have made it clear that they will not tolerate any threat on the life of a lawmaker or any Australian. The police take this case very seriously. Through forensic testing, they hope to be able to identify the source of the threat.”
Ahead of the weekend’s summit, New York-based Human Rights Watch’s Australia director Elaine Pearson urged Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to call out ASEAN leaders such as Hun Sen, who she said “are under no illusions about their own rights records” and “are awarded an unexpected bonus when countries such as Australia give them a free pass.”
In recent months, and ahead of general elections scheduled for July, Hun Sen’s government has launched a massive crackdown against the country’s political opposition, as well as media groups and civil society organizations who have been critical of his leadership.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.