Unresolved killing casts a shadow over Cambodia
Two year anniversary of assassinated pro-democracy activist Kem Ley underscores a climate of impunity and intimidation ahead of this month's polls
“We started it together with him and now the ideas are still with us,” said Yeng Vireak on the two-year anniversary of the assassination of Cambodian political analyst and pro-democracy activist Kem Ley. “He is still with us. We walk together all the time.”
Ley, a prominent radio personality known for his stinging critiques of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government, was gunned down in broad daylight at a gas station convenience store in the morning of July 10, 2016.
The killer, who later self-identified as Chuop Somlap, or “Meet to Kill”, claimed he assassinated Ley because he owed him the local equivalent of US$3,000. The debt and claim of a relationship between the two men has been disputed both by his own wife and Ley’s widow.
In the days leading up to his death, Ley had taken to the airwaves to discuss an expose Global Witness report that revealed a vast network of alleged corruption and illicit businesses centered on Hun Sen and his family.
His open criticism, the strange circumstances surrounding his death, and a subsequent lacking investigation has led many to believe that the assassination may have been a state-sponsored hit.
The government has responded to the accusations with its typical iron first, sentencing political commentator Kim Sok to 18 months in prison and handing exiled opposition politician Sam Rainsy 20 months in jail for making such claims.
Rainsy, a dual French citizen, has lived outside of Cambodia since 2015 to avoid a slew of politically tinged convictions. He has since doubled down on the charged accusation.
“Only the government has the means to perpetrate this obviously state-sponsored act of terrorism, which followed the pattern of countless similar assassinations committed in broad daylight under the [government] with total impunity over the last 25 years.
“Only the government benefitted from the elimination of a brilliant government critic such as Kem Ley,” he said in a recent email to Asia Times.
This week, both Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) released statements condemning the questionable quality of the investigation into Ley’s murder.
“Kem Ley apparently paid with his life for becoming a popular critic of massive corruption at the highest levels of government,” said Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director, in the statement.
“The Cambodian government claims to respect the rule of law, but since Kem Ley’s murder the authorities have ignored all investigative leads and harassed critics who demand justice.”
The statement called the trial against Somlap, birth name Oeuth Ang, “farcical” and requested that the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cambodia be permitted to carry out an independent investigation.
“The investigation appears to have fallen far short of the international law and standards that apply to investigations of this kind,” said ICJ’s Kingsley Abbott in an email to Asia Times.
Abbott, who monitored Ang’s trial, said there were “obvious gaps” in his story which have not been investigated, including establishing the identity of the man who allegedly introduced Ang and Ley.
Abbott said no information has been released on Ang’s background or if he ever served in the military or government.
A friend of Ang’s told the Cambodia Daily in 2016 that Ang claimed to have left their village to be a soldier in Phnom Penh just before Ley’s murder.
CCTV footage of the murder is also apparently missing and has been the subject of an American lawsuit. After Rainsy was sentenced in Cambodia for incitement and defamation, he called on US oil giant Chevron, which owns Caltex, to release video footage at the gas station where Ley was shot that might exonerate him.
A California-based judge ruled in Rainsy’s favor, but the gas corporation said they couldn’t turn over the tapes as they already given them to the Cambodian government, which has only released incomplete snippets of the footage.
“The killing also took place in the context of increasing retaliation against perceived opponents of the government and against a historical backdrop of well-documented apparent extra-judicial killings in Cambodia,” Abbott said.
Before his death, Ley helped to found the Grassroots Democracy Party (GDP), a progressive party seen as a possible third choice outside of Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and Rainsy’s Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).
The CPP-led government has since embarked on a large-scale political crackdown that culminated in the dissolution of the CNRP and the arrest of its then-leader, Kem Sokha, for treason.
Rainsy and other CNRP leaders have called on supporters to boycott this month’s national election, claiming it will lack legitimacy without the participation of the country’s largest opposition party.
The GDP has once again found itself caught between both major parties, reporting instances of harassment by local government officials and suffering extreme criticism from the CNRP for participating in the election.
GDP held a campaign rally in Phnom Penh on July 10 to commemorate Ley’s legacy. The rally began at the party’s headquarters on the outskirts of the capital before winding its way to the scene of Ley’s murder. It ended at the site of his funeral ceremony.
Party president Yeng Vireak said he does not believe justice has been served for Ley, but that Ley would have rather focused on “social justice” rather than his own personal justice.
Yang Saing Koma, the party’s candidate for prime minister, said GDP is still considering withdrawing over an uneven electoral playing field.
During their campaign event virtually no traffic police were assigned to help facilitate the march, with GDP campaigners often forced to direct traffic themselves. In sharp contrast, dozens of traffic police were stationed on every street corner to organize the CPP’s rally on July 7.
Koma says GDP must get explicit permission from the National Election Committee for any events, while the CPP has supporters with loudspeakers “every 50 meters” and posts billboards on ostensibly public areas like schools and pagodas. GDP has also reported having billboards torn down throughout the country.
“They ask where we go, when we go, how many people – it’s not free,” he said.
At the same time, Koma says the CNRP is unfairly attacking GDP, including accusations that GDP is a puppet of the ruling party, which he says are unfounded and offensive. Koma also says that in the past the CNRP attacked Ley, but now that he is dead they want to hijack his legacy.
“They are fake, they have to apologize first,” he said.
For Sam Inn, another GDP co-founder, party members have a duty to serve the “high purpose” for which Ley sacrificed his life. “If we decide to abandon that mission he can not rest in peace,” he said.
While few police were dispatched to facilitate the march, officers were present in numbers at the gas station where Ley was killed to observe the blessing ceremony and harass journalists.
Multiple foreign journalists were separated and forced to show their press passes, visas and work permits, which the police subsequently photographed.
Meanwhile, Ley’s friends and followers laid a wreath of lotus flowers and said a prayer, while one young GDP supporter knelt on the parking lot pavement and sobbed.
The procession ended at the Buddhist temple Wat Chas, where a group of men were waiting to photograph and videotape everybody who entered. One of them openly wore a CPP logo.
Such intimidation is rampant in Cambodia, forcing Ley’s pregnant widow Bou Rachana to flee the country with her children after his murder. She sought political asylum in Australia, where she still hasn’t been free of death threats.
“Since I arrived in Australia I used to get threats from some people that they would kill my whole family,” she said in an interview with Asia Times.
“We received the letter through the mailbox and they told me to stay quiet if I don’t want to get killed like people in Cambodia,” Rachana continued.
She reported the threats to Australian police who began an investigation. While she never learned of the results of the investigation, the threats soon thereafter stopped.
Rachana is hesitant to outright accuse the government of murdering her husband, but said the investigation has been abysmal. “The government didn’t really take it seriously,” she said.