Cambodians with close ties to slain pundit Kem Ley are fleeing the country or going into hiding as they fear for their personal safety following the popular gadfly’s death and funeral, RFA’s Khmer Service has learned.
Chum Huor and Chum Huot, twin brothers and environmental activists who were close to Kem Ley, left Cambodia a few days after the killing and after they posted criticisms about the murder investigation on their Facebook pages and gave accounts of the slaying to the U.S. embassy.
The twins were granted refugee status by the U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights so they could move to another country. Exactly where is unclear.
They were granted refugee status with the assistance from the U.S.-based International Khmer Assembly (IKARE), IKARE Director Kosol Sek told RFA on Wednesday.
“The reasons IKARE helped these two environmental activists, is because the organization wanted them to continue the numerous works left behind by Dr. Kem Ley,” Kosol Sek said. IKARE is located in Minnesota where many expatriate Cambodians live.
The Chum twins aren’t the only Cambodians with ties to Kem Ley who fled. Many people who served on Kem Ley’s funeral commission have left the country or gone into hiding, among them Buddhist monk But Buntenh, president of the Independent Monk Network for Social Justice, sources tell RFA.
Kem Ley was shot dead on July 10 in Phnom Penh and buried in Takeo Monday after a weekend funeral procession that drew throngs of mourners and well-wishers.
Fear of reprisal
Buddhist monk But Buntenh, president of the Independent Monk Network for Social Justice and a member of the Kem Ley funeral commission, recently told RFA that he feared for his safety after authorities went to his home village searching for his identification documents.
“We’re very concerned that they will cause trouble for him in the same way they did to Dr. Kem Ley,” his father But Sdeung told RFA. “I am deeply concerned about that, and I would like to appeal to the U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights to do whatever they can to protect the safety of all members of our family.”
A civil society official, who was also a member of Kem Ley’s funeral committee, said the authorities must take measures to protect them while some individuals have been threatened.
“Dr. Kem Ley’s funeral commission has been threatened since the delay of Kem Ley’s funeral procession and his burial,” said Moeun Tola, executive director of the Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights and Labor (CENTRAL).
There were discussions about delaying Kem Ley’s funeral procession from Phonm Penh to his hometown in Takeo province to allow more mourners to pay their respects. In the end, the funeral procession went ahead on Sunday and hundreds of thousands of Cambodians jammed the streets to take part.
“The authorities must be responsible to take measures to protect the citizens and the members of Dr. Kem Ley’s funeral commission who have been threatened,” Moeun Tola said. “The authorities were not happy with the delay of the funeral, and the threats to the funeral commission bring more suspicion on the government.”
Cheang Sokha, executive director of the Youth Resource Development Program (YRDP), wondered what threat the funeral posed.
“What trouble does Dr. Kem Ley’s funeral cause to society?” he told RFA. “[There] should be a discussion for a solution. If there is any threat, it would not benefit society.”
Attempts to contact officials with the Ministry of the Interior and the National Police Commissariat went unreturned.
Just days before Kem Ley was gunned down, he’d discussed on RFA a report by the British NGO Global Witness detailing the extent of the Hun Sen family’s wealth.
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 said in a recent appearance on RFA’s Special Discussion Show. “Only those who have the highest authority would be the ones who ordered such killings.”
A worry for Hun Sen
While the killing appears to have stoked fear in people close to Kem Ley, Elizabeth Becker, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former correspondent for The New York Times in Cambodia and Author of “When the War Was Over, A Modern History of Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge,” said Hun Sen also appeared to be unnerved by the public’s reaction.
“Immediately everyone in the country presumed this was a murder ordered by the government of Hun Sen,” she said at the Heritage Foundation in Washington on Tuesday. “Cambodians of all ages and situations immediately gathered in the city of Phnom Penh.”
When the outpouring of support for Kem Ley failed to blow over, Hun Sen took more threatening action, she explained.
“They went to pay homage to the body, and by Sunday the government was so worried about a popular uprising that the government ordered tanks into the capitol and ordered the military and police in the streets, shut down gas stations and ordered all the TV stations not to cover the event,” she said.
“Yet hundreds of thousands of Cambodians defied their government’s bullying threats and marched in the funeral parade. They were mourning not just the loss of Kem Ley, the leader, but of the democracy that he championed,” Becker added.
On Wednesday a military convoy moved through Kampong Cham province in what Defense Ministry spokesman Chhum Socheat told RFA was a routine deployment.
“It is a routine activity that every 3 months, we exchange armed forces from the front line to the back line,” he said.
Reported by Sarada Taing, Nareth Muong, Savyouth Hang and Vuthy Tha for RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Yanny Hin.Written in English by Brooks Boliek.