Cam­bo­dia’s ex­pla­na­tion for ac­tivist killing draws doubt

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

Kem Ley, a poor rice farmer’s son turned cham­pion of Cam­bo­dia’s have-nots, was sip­ping his usual iced latte in the same chair he had oc­cu­pied most morn­ings for years. Eye­wit­nesses say a for­mer sol­dier walked into the Cal­tex gas sta­tion cafe, fired a semi-au­to­matic Glock pis­tol into his chest and head and ca­su­ally walked away.

Two weeks later, tens of thou­sands of mourn­ers thronged Ph­nom Penh’s streets to trail the glass cas­ket bear­ing Kem Ley’s body in the largest public rally Cam­bo­dia has wit­nessed in re­cent times. The funeral march re­flected not only grief for the pop­u­lar govern­ment critic, but also anger at a govern­ment that this year has dec­i­mated op­po­nents through im­pris­on­ment, in­tim­i­da­tion and, many be­lieve, the still-un­re­solved killing of Kem Ley.

Harsh­est crack­down

Many view the South­east Asian coun­try’s harsh­est crack­down in years as an at­tempt by Prime Min­is­ter Hun Sen to sus­tain his more than 30-year-long grip on power in 2018 elec­tions. The op­po­si­tion came un­ex­pect­edly close to win­ning the last elec­tion, in 2013.

Cam­bo­dian au­thor­i­ties deny any in­volve­ment in Kem Ley’s death in Ph­nom Penh, the cap­i­tal. They ar­rested ex-sol­dier and mi­grant worker Oeut Ang from a dis­tant prov­ince on al­le­ga­tions that he killed Kem Ley in July be­cause the ac­tivist failed to re­pay a $3,000 loan. Hun Sen has promised a “vig­or­ous in­ves­ti­ga­tion.” Ph­nom Penh Mu­nic­i­pal Court spokesman Ly So­phana told re­porters the in­ves­ti­ga­tion is still un­der­way. He did not say when it will be com­pleted or the trial set.

“At the mo­ment, the court is mak­ing an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the case and the govern­ment can’t com­ment while it is in the hands of the court,” In­for­ma­tion Min­is­ter Khieu Kan­harith said. In­ter­views with Oeut Ang’s wife, Kem Lay’s fam­ily and oth­ers raise doubts about the govern­ment’s as­ser­tions that a loan was the mo­tive, height­en­ing sus­pi­cions that the killing may have been po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated.

Hoeum Huot said she and her hus­band “lived from hand to mouth” and that he could never have had $3,000 in his pocket to lend. She said her hus­band, whose nick­name Chuob Sam­lap means “meet and kill,” was prone to drunk­en­ness, out of a job and sold his mo­tor­bike be­fore the killing to pay off a gam­bling debt. She never heard him men­tion Kem Ley. Kem Ley’s mother, Pov Se, and sis­ter Kem Thavy said the 45-yearold doc­tor-turned-ac­tivist lived sim­ply and never in­curred debts, and had never met Oeut Ang as far as they knew.

Shortly be­fore his death, Kem Ley spoke on ra­dio about a re­port is­sued by the Lon­don­based re­search and ad­vo­cacy group Global Wit­ness that al­leged the prime min­is­ter and his fam­ily had ac­cu­mu­lated mas­sive wealth and re­tained power through cor­rup­tion and brute force. Ear­lier he had criss­crossed the coun­try to query vil­lagers about their prob­lems. Since Kem Ley’s death, his wife and five sons left in fear for Thai­land, where they have ap­plied for asylum in Aus­tralia.

“I have no idea why my brother was killed, but friends and neigh­bors of­ten told me that he should not talk about Hun Sen and his fam­ily,” Kem Thavy said. “I ar­gued with him: ‘You can­not hold up the earth all by your­self.’” Keo Remy, pres­i­dent of the govern­ment’s Cam­bo­dian Hu­man Rights Com­mit­tee, re­fused to be in­ter­viewed or an­swer writ­ten ques­tions about Kem Ley and hu­man rights.

Ac­tivists say the killing has come to sym­bol­ize the man­i­fold ills of Cam­bo­dian so­ci­ety un­der Hun Sen’s 31-year rule. “The death of Kem Ley is the death of hu­man rights in Cam­bo­dia. It is the si­lenc­ing of civil so­ci­ety ac­tors. They are now mute,” said But Bun­tenh, a promi­nent Bud­dhist monk and friend of Kem Ley’s who is among the few public fig­ures still openly crit­i­ciz­ing the regime. But he said the in­ci­dent has also back­fired on Hun Sen and his Cam­bo­dia Peo­ple’s Party, hav­ing sparked a strong, al­beit in­co­he­sive, pro-democ­racy surge among large seg­ments of the pop­u­la­tion. Mean­while, Kem Ley has been el­e­vated to a leg­endary sta­tus, per­haps greater than his ac­tual ac­com­plish­ments. “With his death we have gained a great deal,” said But Bun­tenh. “It has been five months but peo­ple are still weep­ing.” Mourn­ers come to his sim­ple grave ev­ery day, in­clud­ing more than 100 who paid their re­spects on the Novem­ber day his fam­ily was in­ter­viewed in Kem Ley’s na­tive village of Ang Takok, south­west of Ph­nom Penh.

“He was cru­cial to us be­cause of the is­sues that he tack­led. He was a great model for Cam­bo­dian peo­ple,” said mourner Chan Sy. Kem Thavy, of­ten wip­ing away tears, de­scribed her brother as gen­tle but in­de­pen­dent and un­will­ing to com­pro­mise his ideals. “He told me that if some­one of­fered him 1 or 2 mil­lion dol­lars he would not sell out, that if some­one of­fered him a job with a big salary in order to stop talk­ing about Cam­bo­dia he would not take it,” she said.

Si­lence crit­ics

Kem Ley dropped his med­i­cal prac­tice to im­prove life for Cam­bo­di­ans, But Bun­tenh said. “As a doc­tor he could only cure one pa­tient at a time, so he be­came a na­tional doc­tor to treat Cam­bo­dia’s many ‘diseases’ and help thou­sands,” he said. While deny­ing any role in Kem Ley’s death, the govern­ment has taken steps to si­lence other crit­ics. — AP

PH­NOM PENH: In this July 10, 2016, file photo, the body of Kem Ley, a promi­nent Cam­bo­dian po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst, lays on the floor with ev­i­dence mark­ers af­ter he was shot in­side a shop. — AP

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