Cambodia, assassination capital of Asia
THERE’S been another one. Again the victim was a prominent government critic, shot in the head in broad daylight in the centre of Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital. What is it with that place? Over the past two decades, it has gained a reputation as one of the most dangerous nations in the world to be an opposition politician or a member of an independent watchdog body.
And as if Phnom Penh becoming Assassination Central were not bad enough, what’s worse is that those who commission these lethal eliminations rarely get punished.
The latest atrocity occurred on July 10 when Kem Ley, one of Cambodia’s most high-profile and respected community leaders, was gunned down in a gas station coffee shop in downtown Phnom Penh. The hit man, who was caught a short distance away, was a 44-year-old drifter from a border village who, among other things, had once been a foot soldier, a forestry hand, a labourer in Thailand and even a monk.
He took work and other assignments when they came his way, and in this case, he claimed that he had shot Kem Ley over an unrepaid US$3000 loan.
The weapon he used was a sophisticated, Austrian-made Glock revolver, which, as observers noted, was not the sort of gun one would expect a rural migrant worker to possess.
As well, his wife and mother said he had never had as much money as $3000, and certainly not to lend to anyone – and most certainly not to Kem Ley who, as far as they were aware, he did not know.
Soon Cambodia was buzzing with speculation about the real motive for the murder, and it was naturally assumed that it was related to Kem Ley’s role as a commentator and fearless critic of the government.
His radio broadcasts were especially popular with all sections of society and he recently informed listeners across the country about a July 7 report into the wealth of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s family.
In itself, it was no more shocking than allegations about the effusive wealth of other former regional strongmen like Indonesia’s General Suharto, Myanmar’s senior general Than Shwe and Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. And in truth, all Cambodians with average eyesight have long been able to witness the shameless ostentation displayed by the lavish homes, vehicles, and accoutrements of Hun Sen and his entourage.
What came as a bombshell, however, was the extent and magnitude of the shareholdings in almost all the nation’s major companies by every member of the first family.
The devastating report was produced by Global Witness, an international anti-corruption oversight body based in London, and it was aptly titled, “Hostile Takeover: The Corporate Empire of Cambodia’s Ruling Family”.
Based on data from official government sources, the report revealed that Hun Sen’s family has links to 114 domestic companies with a share capital of over $200 million – and that this was just the “tip of the iceberg”.
Indeed, senior businesspeople in Cambodia said they would tend to multiply the figures for the alleged holdings of the family at least tenfold.
The report concluded, “The family’s holdings span the majority of Cambodia’s most lucrative business sectors as well those characterised by high levels of corruption, human rights abuses and environmental damage.”
So it was pretty damning, but the report ran to 58 pages and its complexity made it a tough read even for professionals, let alone Cambodia’s poorly educated rural masses.
That’s where Kem Ley came to the rescue, and in his calm, simply worded Khmer-language broadcasts, he cut through to the key points and made listeners aware of the incredible moral turpitude of their political rulers.
Of course, in the process, he made himself a marked man; but that said, no one knows for sure whether a member of the first family directly ordered his elimination. What is known is that most Cambodians suspect there is a connection between Kem Ley’s assassination and his steadfast criticism of the nation’s political leaders.
Naturally, the prime minister denied it. Said Hun Sen, “Who gains any benefit from this incident, which happened at the same time as my government has been talking about peace and safety for the people?”
He tacitly inferred that Kem Ley’s murder could be viewed as benefitting his opponents, since it reflected badly on his government. But few believe the opposition was in any way responsible; instead, suspicion has fallen on the ruling party.
It is nothing new, given that there have been similar assassinations in the past, notably those of the fiery trade unionist Chea Vichea in 2004 and the popular environmental activist Chut Wutty in 2012.
The nation’s reputation – already tarnished by such murders, and those of actress Pisith Pilika, the PM’s alleged mistress, in 1999, as well as a grenade attack on a 1997 opposition rally – has now been well and truly battered.
Furthermore, the well-connected figures who commission these killings, as well as their corrupt business partners, always seem to escape with impunity.
The Global Witness report noted, “Due to a politicised judiciary which remains firmly in the pocket of Hun Sen, his family members and the companies to which they are linked have been able to operate without fear of prosecution.”
It all reinforces a growing belief that Singapore’s former PM Lee Kuan Yew was right when he said Cambodia should never have been admitted to ASEAN because it lacks the shared values of the founding members.
In fact, it drags the entire group down into the gutter.
Mourners gather around a car carrying the body of political analyst and frequent government critic Kem Ley, who was shot dead in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on July 10.