While they remain unbowed by the execution-style slaying of government critic Kem Ley, opponents of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen say they could easily suffer the same fate as the popular activist.
Kem Ley was shot twice at point blank range on Sunday while sitting alone inside a Caltex gas station at the intersection of Monivong and Mao Zedong boulevards in Phnom Penh, where he liked to have coffee and talk with friends.
“Paradoxically, I am safer behind bars,” opposition party lawmaker Um Sam An told RFA’s Khmer Service. “If I were outside of the prison, I would have the same fate as that of Kem Ley, who was gunned down because he had the guts to criticize the government and the Hun family members based on the Global Witness report.”
Just days before he was killed, Kem Ley had appeared on an RFA Khmer Service call-in show to discuss a report by the London-based NGO Global Witness that documented how Hun Sen and his family have amassed a fortune in excess of $200 million. The Hun family has dismissed the report.
Um Sam An was jailed in April after Hun Sen ordered police to arrest anyone accusing the government of using “fake” maps to cede national territory to neighboring Vietnam. The Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) lawmaker made his remarks as he was being led away from an appearance at the Appeals Court in Phnom Penh.
His arrest and charges came even though lawmakers are guaranteed immunity by Cambodia’s constitution unless two-thirds of the National Assembly vote to approve of the arrest. There is a loophole in the law, however, that allows lawmakers to be arrested if they are caught in the act of committing a crime.
His case has been widely seen as another instance of the persecution of the political opposition by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
Um Sam An said Kem Ley had also criticized the government over the Vietnam border issue--seen as a weak spot for Hun Sen, who was installed by Hanoi three decades ago while Cambodia was embroiled in a civil war.
“He also dared to give his criticism on the border issues,” he said. “Those who allow our land to be seized remain at large while we who protest the loss of the land are jailed.”
While police have a suspect in custody, authorities first reported his name as Chuop Samlap, which means “Meet to Kill” in Khmer, but later said he was an ex-Buddhist monk named Oeuth Ang.
Authorities say the suspect told them he killed Kem Ley over a $3,000 debt, a story that has been challenged by the suspect’s wife and by family members and people who knew the slain researcher and leader of the advocacy group Khmer for Khmer.
On Monday, 70 Cambodian civil society organizations condemned the murder and demanded “a prompt, independent and thorough investigation, including a forensic examination by an independent and expert pathologist, so that Kem Ley and his family can receive justice.”
‘The crime was orchestrated’
But Buntenh, head of the Buddhism for Peace Organization, told RFA’s Khmer Service he was convinced “the crime was orchestrated.”
He told RFA that he met Kem Ley just days before his death to discuss the challenges they faced, and the normally optimistic analyst told him: “Now the time has come. We will not be spared. They are going to kill us in the very near future.”
But Buntenh added: “The name of the suspect itself tells it all. Chuop Samlap means ‘meet to kill.’ Let’s not just prosecute him. Let’s cast a wider net to hold those who hired him accountable as well.”
After being questioned from about 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Kem Ley’s suspected killer, who has no legal representation, remains in police custody. Charges are expected to be filed on Wednesday, said Phnom Penh Municipal Court spokesperson Ly Sophanna.
While critics are questioning the government’s actions, a Ministry of Interior spokesman attempted to dissuade people from jumping to conclusions, saying authorities have retrieved security cameras from the crime scene.
“We have seized the cameras now. It’s not true that the memory in the cameras is blank,” said ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak. “Please try not to confuse the public with rumors. Otherwise people will think he is an artificial killer.”
“Artificial killer” is term used in Cambodia for a scapegoat in a high-profile killing. The term become popular after the death of Chea Vichea, another government critic who led the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia. He was gunned down in 2004 at a newsstand in Phnom Penh.
Reported by RFA's Khmer Service.Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.