Family members and local villagers are raising questions about the investigation into Sunday’s slaying of outspoken government critic Kem Ley as they cast doubt about the suspected killer’s identity and the motive alleged for the killing.
According to authorities, Kem Ley was shot while sitting alone inside the 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. The 46-year-old was attacked execution-style, shot once behind his left ear and once under his left arm.
While Cambodian police have identified the suspected killer as Chuop Samlap, the alleged culprit’s family and Buddhist monks told RFA’s Khmer Service that the man is actually a former soldier and an ex-monk named Oeuth Ang.
Hoeum Horth, 45, who is married to the suspect, said she recognized him when she saw a Facebook post with his picture.
They had been married for only about two months when Oeuth Ang, 43, left the Norkor Pheas 2 village, in Siem Reap province’s Angkor Chum district on a trip after they had a falling out because he gambled away a new motorbike.
“He told me that he was going to Phnom Penh,” she told RFA. “I didn’t ask him much about his trip because I was angry with him. After we got married, I bought a new motorbike for him that he lost gambling. He had no money when he went to Phnom Penh.”
The suspect’s 64-year-old mother, Ek Tap, who lives in Tunle Sar village, which is about three miles from the village where Oeuth Ang lived, said she recognized a photo of the suspect she saw on TV as her eldest son.
Ek Tap told RFA that Chuop Samlap, which means “Meet to Kill” in Khmer, was likely an alias he gave police. Ek Tap said her son had a job as an environmental conservation worker for the government, but that he had been a soldier in his youth.
“He used to be a soldier in Angkor Chum district when he was very young,” she said. “I was shocked to see him like that as he was never involved in such bad activity. Yesterday I saw him on TV. I recognized him as Oeuth Ang.”
Ek Tap told RFA that her son had been a soldier from his early teens until 1998, but had done a lot of jobs after that, including working in Thailand.
Villagers and monastic leaders say Oeuth Ang tried to become a Buddhist monk, but he wasn’t cut out for the monastic life.
Soeum Suon, the head monk at Prasath Thnung pagoda in Saom commune, told RFA he ordained Oeuth Ang as a Buddhist monk in 2012, but kicked him out after a year for his bad behavior.
“When I reprimanded him for his poor discipline, he threatened to shoot me,” the monk said. “When he was a monk he bragged about his work as a soldier. He is illiterate. I decided to kick him out of the pagoda in 2013.”
Saom Samorn of Angkor Chum district told RFA he’d also ordained Oeuth Ang, but that Oeuth Ang didn’t clean up his act.
“Oeuth Ang used to threaten that anyone who caused him trouble would be killed with a gun that he had purchased,” the monk said. “I assume that he has had that gun since back when he was a monk.”
While villagers described Oeuth Ang as a cruel man who liked to drink heavily and chase women and was capable of carrying out the killing, they questioned his alleged motive.
Police have said that the murderer killed Kem Ley over a $3,000 debt, but that makes little sense, say the villagers and his wife.
Kem Ley’s wife Pou Rachana challenged the suspect’s confession, calling it an attempt to make the popular researcher and leader of the advocacy group Khmer for Khmer look bad.
“He never borrowed from anyone, not even 100 riels (U.S. $ 0.03),” she told RFA. “He wouldn’t dare to ask people to lend him money. He even helped provide free consultation to some poor NGOs. He was very gentle, polite and kind person. He liked helping people.”
Oeuth Ang was brought to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Monday under heavy guard and was questioned for more than an hour. Reporters were kept away, but Phnom Penh Municipal Court spokesperson Ly Sophanna said he would be questioned again on July 12.
A call for transparency
Distrust with the police runs deep in Cambodia where they often are seen as adding and abetting the brutality that has marked Prime Minister Hun Sen’s more than 30 years heading the country.
Relatives and local people aren’t the only ones with questions. Eng Chhai Eang, a Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) senior official, said the authorities must show the public security footage in and around the Star Mart, where Kem Ley was killed.
“If the Cambodian authorities want to resolve public doubt and suspicion, they need to show the captured video footage to the public so that we are satisfied,” Eng Chhai Eang said. “Please try not to point your fingers at others. You have to be accountable and show your competency in prosecuting criminals.”
Prime Minister Hun Sen on Monday ordered a thorough investigation into the killing and announced a large-scale campaign to strengthen security and social order in the aftermath of Kem Ley’s murder.
“This is a loss. It badly affects the reputation of the government,” he said. “Who will benefit from such a thing when the government is talking about peace and security?”
Kem Ley’s death comes at a time of political uncertainty for Cambodia with opposition CNRP leader Sam Rainsy in self-imposed exile and facing defamation charges.
Other opposition leaders have been tossed in jail and the acting head of the CNRP has been holed up in party headquarters since heavily armed police attempted to arrest him in connection with cases related to an alleged affair.
Public killings of Hun Sen’s critics have regularly occurred during the first 15 years of his rule but the killings have diminished over the years. Political tension between Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party and the CNRP has been intensifying this year, however, as the parties prepare to contest local elections in 2017 and a general election in 2018.
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 documenting how Hun Sen and his family have amassed a $200 million fortune. The Hun family has dismissed the report.
The U.S. State Department expressed concern over the killing. RFA is funded by the U.S. government
“We are deeply saddened and concerned by reports of the tragic killing of prominent Cambodian political commentator Dr. Kem Ley. We offer our sincere and profound condolences to his family, friends, and colleagues,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said in a statement. “We are following developments in this case closely, noting the Cambodian government's call for an investigation, and urge that authorities ensure this process be thorough and impartial.”
Reported by Savyouth Hang for RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.