The murder of political analyst and strident government critic Kem Ley on Sunday morning has thrust Cambodia back to a time when government opponents were gunned down in the street for speaking out against the ruling party. Shot dead at close range at a Caltex service station in central Phnom Penh, where he regularly stopped for coffee, Ley’s murder drew crowds of mourners into the streets as protesters struggled to prevent police from carrying away his body.
The shooter, who originally gave his name in a recorded confession to police as Choub Samlab, which translates to “meet to kill”, has been identified by local media as Siem Reap resident Eout Ang. Although initial police statements claimed the shooting was caused by a quarrel over a $3,000 debt allegedly owed by Ley, Ang’s wife told the Phnom Penh Post that she could not believe her husband had acted of his own accord.
“There must have been someone who ordered him to kill him,” she said.
Sebastian Strangio, the author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia, told Southeast Asia Globe that Ley’s death had all the hallmarks of a politically motivated hit – though he stressed that it was difficult to know precisely who was behind the shooting.
“From the timing to the method, this is disturbingly familiar. There’s little doubt in my mind that the killing was politically motivated.”Sebastian Strangio, Author, Hun Sen’s Cambodia
“We can say that this fits the long-established pattern of political violence in Cambodia,” he said. “From the timing to the method, this is disturbingly familiar. There’s little doubt in my mind that the killing was politically motivated.”
Strangio said that Ley’s ongoing criticism of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and strong support among rural Cambodians – he set up a grassroots political network, Khmer for Khmer, in 2014 – had put him in danger of reprisals.
“He spent a lot of time in the provinces speaking to ordinary people, crafting metaphors that resonated with them and expressing things in very familiar language,” he said, suggesting that Ley had offered his supporters a “new path forward in Cambodian politics”.
“The CPP heartland is the rural parts of the country – most of the urban areas go for the opposition,” Strangio said. “And so anyone who makes inroads in these areas and begins to connect with and communicate effectively with rural people is going to put themselves into the crosshairs.”
The death of the analyst, who was vocal in his criticism of both the government and the opposition, comes during a wave of government repression of political opponents in Cambodia. Local human rights NGO Licadho reports that at least 26 political prisoners are currently held in the country’s jails – primarily human rights workers, local activists and members of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP). Deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha, acting head of the opposition since CNRP leader Sam Rainsy went into self-imposed exile in late 2015 to avoid a slew of government-initiated lawsuits, remains holed up in opposition headquarters to avoid arrest over a protracted sex scandal that many critics believe to be politically motivated.
Cambodian Centre for Human Rights executive director Chak Sopheap said the timing of Ley’s murder could not be ignored. “While the circumstances of Kem Ley’s brutal murder remain unclear, this shocking attack has arrived in the context of a wider ongoing crackdown on civil society and the political opposition in Cambodia ahead of the upcoming elections,” she said.
Calling for an immediate independent inquiry into Ley’s murder, Sopheap was adamant that the analyst’s death should not be treated with the same disregard for justice that has become a staple of political killings in Cambodia’s recent history.
“If political analysts, human rights defenders and other members of civil society are to be able to carry out their vital work effectively and without fear, then such horrific crimes cannot be met with impunity, as has so often been the case in the past,” she said.
For Strangio, Ley’s murder was an all-too-familiar throwback to the violent attacks on dissidents dating back to the turn of the century.
“This represents a sharp escalation of the political crackdown that was already occurring,” he said. “It’s part of a familiar pattern – in the past, especially in the 1990s and early 2000s, lawfare – legal assaults on government critics – went hand-in-hand with sharp isolated episodes of violence. Violence has faded a little bit from Cambodian public life, in part because Prime Minister Hun Sen has consolidated control over most of the government apparatus and most of society. This killing marks a return [to], or the disturbing echo of, the strategies employed 20 years ago.”
Even after the fall of the murderous Khmer Rouge regime in 1979, shocking political violence has been recurrent in Cambodia. In March 1997, at least 16 people were killed and more than 100 wounded in a grenade attack targeting opposition politician Sam Rainsy during a political rally in Phnom Penh. An FBI investigation cast suspicion on Hun Sen’s own private bodyguard, though no suspects were ever charged. Seven years later, outspoken trade unionist Chea Vichea was gunned down in the city’s centre by two men on motorcycles. Two men originally charged with the attack were later released due to a lack of evidence, leaving the real killers at large.
Nor has violence been limited to the past. In October last year, two opposition lawmakers were dragged from their cars and viciously beaten by a mob as they left the National Assembly. A Human Rights Watch report into the attacks, released earlier this year, presented damning evidence of the involvement of state security forces in the assault – including members of the prime minister’s bodyguard.
“From start to finish, the October 26 assault had all the hallmarks of an operation carried out by Cambodian state security forces,” the report stated.
Strangio said that this week’s fatal attack comes amid growing CPP fears ahead of the 2018 general election, after the CNRP made significant gains in the 2013 polls.
“They’ve made it very clear that if reform comes, it will come – like everything else does in Cambodia – from the CPP and from Prime Minister Hun Sen,” he said. “But they’re definitely concerned at the moment that their grip on power is slipping.”
Sopheap said the Cambodia of today was different to the one that endured the violence of past decades.
“The Cambodian people are increasingly aware of the human rights they should be afforded under international and Cambodian law and they will not allow the fear created by such attacks to silence them,” she said.
“I am confident that, like other civil society organisations, such traumatic events will only strengthen our determination to continue this work.”
Strangio was less optimistic.
“I think this will have a chilling effect,” he said. “It sends people the message that they cannot expect to continue to speak freely and be safe – even if something never happens to them, the fear will pervade these sections of Cambodian society.”