Cambodia’s history of politically motivated assassinations continues in the lead-up to the country’s 2018 elections, writes Jenny Denton.
A funeral procession of more than a million people, organisers said, accompanied the coffin of slain activist Kem Ley through Phnom Penh on Sunday as his body made the journey from the pagoda where it had lain in state for two weeks back to his home town in the provinces.
The assassination of the popular political commentator highlights an intensifying crackdown on political opposition and civil society in Cambodia which has seen opposition leaders pursued on defamation charges, parliamentarians badly beaten, and activists, monks and human rights workers arrested and held in prison in the long lead-up to national elections in 2018.
Political commentator Dr Kem Ley feared for his life but was resigned to the danger, and carried on with his work and routine.
“If we go to jail, we go together,” he told a group of young environmental activists on 9 July, according to the Phnom Penh Post, “and if they kill us, we die together”.
But Dr Ley was alone on Sunday, 10 July, when after dropping his wife at Phnom Penh’s central market he headed to the nearby Star Mart on Monivong Boulevard for his regular morning coffee.
Within minutes the 46-year-old father of four was lying dead on the floor, shot at close range in the head and chest, his coffee untouched on a table beside him.
Just days earlier Kem Ley had been interviewed on radio about a report condemning Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government as a “kleptocracy” and had challenged the relevant agencies in Cambodia to investigate its claims.
The report, by UK-based NGO Global Witness, refers to “the systematic capture of an entire state and its resources by a profoundly corrupt regime, which has clamped down on free speech and trampled over those who stand in its way, often literally”.
It details the “stranglehold” the Hun family has on “almost every sector of Cambodia’s political economy” through its interests in domestic companies worth more than $US200 million.
While the detailed financial information was new, the substance of the report’s claims was not.
According to Transparency International’s 2015 corruption perceptions index, Cambodia was the most corrupt country in South-east Asia last year, with a rank of 150 out of 168 countries and a score of 21 out of 100.
Its score wasn’t markedly different going back over a decade of Transparency International’s rankings.
A roll-call of watchdog organisations have condemned ongoing government abuses in Cambodia and an intensifying crackdown on civil society in the lead-up to local elections in 2017 and national polls in 2018 which if free and fair would threaten Hun Sen’s more than 30-year rule.
In 2015 “[Hun Sen] used his control of Cambodia’s security forces, courts, and civil service to force the opposition leader into exile, beat up opposition politicians, jail critics, pass draconian laws, and increase the ruling party’s stranglehold on the country’s institutions,” Brad Adams, Asia director of the NGO Human Rights Watch, said in a 2016 media statement.
The leader of the national opposition Cambodia People’s Rescue Party, Sam Rainsy, has been in exile in Paris since November last year when the government announced he had been convicted of criminal defamation.
His deputy, Kem Sokha, who is wanted in connection with another politically motivated defamation case, has been holed up at party headquarters in Phnom Penh under a kind of self-initiated house arrest for the last two months.
Amnesty International in its annual country report condemned Cambodia’s jailing of political and human rights activists, among other abuses, and criticised a law passed in August last year requiring all non-government organisations and associations to be registered with the government and to operate with “political neutrality” as “severely threatening the right to freedom of association”.
In June this year the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights condemned a “drastic and deplorable narrowing of the democratic space” in Cambodia following the arrest in May of four staff members of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC) and a member of the National Election Committee.
The Cambodian League for the Promotion & Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO) has investigated the cases of 26 Cambodians currently being held as political prisoners, among them human rights workers, environment campaigners, monks, students, opposition party activists and members of parliament. Some have received 20-year sentences.
On 10 July as news of Kem Ley’s killing spread, hundreds of people converged at the Phnom Penh service station the convenience store was attached to, many among them agitated or stricken with grief.
The trained doctor-turned-researcher frequently spoke at length on Khmer language radio and had come to be “loved” by ordinary Cambodians for his accessible, unbiased political critiques and “humble, gentle and friendly” nature, according to local reports.
He also spoke out on environmental and rights issues, taking a stand against land grabs, illegal logging and the construction of hydroelectric megadams, which have forced thousands of people from their homes and are likely to impact the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands more.
The advocacy group he founded, Khmer for Khmer, last year established a political party to field candidates at next year’s local elections, although Kem Ley himself wasn’t running for office.
Less than an hour after the killing police had arrested a man who confessed to it.
The assassin gave his name as Choub Samlab – an unlikely appellation which translates as “Meet to Kill” and claimed he’d shot the popular figure with a specially purchased Glock pistol over a US $3,000 debt.
It was a story no-one believed – for one thing the killer was obviously very poor. More to the point, the shooting fit a pattern of political assassinations the public was familiar with.
According to a 2012 Human Rights Watch report, more than 300 people have been killed in politically motivated attacks in Cambodia since 1991, but “not one case has resulted in a credible investigation and conviction”.
High-profile victims have included newspaper editor Thun Bun Ly in 1996; politician Om Radsady, judge Sok Sethamony and Buddhist monk Sam Bunthoeun in 2003; union leaders Chea Vichea and Ros Sovannareth in 2004; union leader Hy Vuthy and monk Eang Sok Thoeun in 2007; journalist Khim Sambo and his son in 2008; and environmental activist Chut Wutty in 2012.
While targeted political slayings haven’t occurred on the streets of the capital for years, in October last year two CNRP parliamentarians were dragged from their cars and beaten unconscious by members of Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit, who later received token sentences for the attacks.
In January 2014 at least four people were killed and tens more injured in Phnom Penh when police opened fire on an opposition-supported demonstration by striking garment workers.
While Hun Sen swiftly took to Facebook to denounce Kem Ley’s murder, and later announced an investigation, there seemed to be little doubt on the street about who was behind the crime.
“We all see clearly that many famous intellectuals are being killed,” an agitated woman identified as a fruit seller told a Reuters cameraperson at the scene. “We only had Kem Ley left, but now he has also been killed. And the police have never found the real killers to bring to justice.”
“Cambodians must be free to participate in democracy without fear,” Deputy Director of Advocacy at LICADHO Naly Pilorge said in a statement signed by 70 civil society organisations expressing outrage at the murder.
“His assassination is a big loss for democracy in Cambodia and we demand swift action, beginning with a full independent investigation using international experts, to achieve justice.”
“Please, national and international communities, please help the Cambodian people,” land rights activist Tep Vanny, who was recently freed from prison, wept and pleaded from the crowd at the murder scene on 10 July. “Many more of us will die if there is no help from you!”
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop told New Matilda in an email that the Australian Government was “saddened by the death of Dr Kem Ley” and supported “a prompt and thorough investigation in accordance with Cambodian law”.
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