Cam­bo­dia, as­sas­si­na­tion cap­i­tal of Asia

The Myanmar Times - - News - ROGER MIT­TON roger­mit­

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.

Photo: EPA

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.

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