PHNOM PENH – A well-known critic of Cambodia’s government who was a known voice in the country’s independent media was shot dead Sunday morning in what police said was a personal dispute over money.
Kem Ley, 45, was killed at a gas station mini-mart complex in Phnom Penh and his attacker was arrested shortly after, said national police spokesman Gen. Kirth Chantharith. He said the suspect claimed to have shot Kem Ley, a high-profile political analyst, because he failed to pay him back for a loan.
Hundreds of people gathered at the site of the killing, including the victim’s widow and at least one of their four children. They set up makeshift memorials with flowers and refused to let ambulances take away the body, instead carrying it in a procession to a Buddhist temple. Some onlookers said they feared the authorities would try to cremate the body without having a proper investigation, or even without a funeral.
The killing comes at a time of political tension that began last year with legal and other pressures on the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party by the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Kem Ley was often critical of the government, and was widely known because he was frequently heard on the popular Cambodian-language services of Radio Free Asia and Voice of America, U.S. government-funded services that are among the few independent news sources in Cambodia. He was also frequently quoted in the country’s handful of independent newspapers.
One of his most recent commentaries was about a report issued last week by the London-based research and advocacy group Global Witness that alleged that Hun Sen and his family have enriched themselves and kept power through corruption.
“We are calling for a thorough and independent investigation into Ley’s murder that will ensure that the real perpetrators are brought to justice, not just the hitmen,” Global Witness said in a statement. “Cambodia has a long history of political, human rights and labour activists being killed, with murderers rarely brought to justice.”
A statement from the Interior Ministry condemned the killing and identified the attacker as Chuob Samlap, 38, one of the many migrant Cambodian farm workers in neighboring Thailand. It promised a serious investigation to determine whether the attack was part of a conspiracy, and pleaded with the public to refrain from premature speculation on the motive.
In a Facebook posting, Hun Sen condemned the killing and said he had ordered a thorough investigation.
Video of the police questioning the suspect, posted on the pro-government Fresh News website, shows the man claiming that Kem Ley borrowed $3,000 from him to help poor people, but that he failed to return it. It was not clear whether his assertion was related to Kem Ley’s involvement in grass-roots political organizing in rural areas.
The suspect also said that he purchased the pistol he used to kill Kem Ley in Thailand.
Violence has long played a prominent part in Cambodian politics, though it often is carried out in the countryside, where it gets little attention. Activists and members of the political opposition are frequent targets, and attackers are rarely brought to justice.
Kem Ley is the most prominent Cambodian government critic to be killed since trade union leader Chea Vichea in 2004. In 2012, conservation activist Chut Wutty was gunned down by a soldier.
In 1997, a grenade attack on a rally held by opposition leader Sam Rainsy killed at least 16 people and wounded more than 100, with no one brought to trial. Last year, two opposition lawmakers were dragged from their cars and badly beaten by members of a pro-government mob. In both cases, critics charged that members of Hun Sen’s personal bodyguard unit were involved in the attacks.
Rainsy is currently in exile to avoid what he asserts is a politically motivated prosecution, and his deputy, Kem Sokha, has been living for weeks at party headquarters trying to avoid what he also says is a specious case against him.
Rainsy’s party issued a statement mourning the death of Kem Ley, lauding him as someone who worked to promote Cambodia’s economy and democratic system.
By Sopheng Cheang – Associated Press