By Abby Seiff —
On the morning of July 10, political analyst Kem Ley was gunned down at his local café in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. An analyst and social researcher, Kem Ley was a media mainstay. For foreign newspapers, he provided pithy quotes. For Khmer-language radio, he spoke sonorously for an hour or more at a time about topics of deep political importance. In this way, his voice became familiar to millions of Cambodians across the country.
The gunshots that killed Kem Ley at 8:30 a.m. were so incongruous that a worker at first thought the coffee machine had blown a fuse. The killer fled on foot, was reportedly pursued by police, and was captured nearly one mile away. When police asked his name, he claimed it was Chuob Samlab — a most unlikely appellation that means “meet to kill.”
What could Kem Ley have done to meet such a fate? In a videotaped confession released by the police, the suspect claims he was owed $3,000. He claims he bought his handgun in Thailand, something that would cost upwards of $2,500. The suspect claims he is a migrant laborer.
In Cambodia and farther afield, no one is buying the wildly contradictory story. Even the National Police spokesman admitted that they “don’t believe him.” But the story is beside the point — whoever sent the killer accomplished what they wanted.
Why was Kem Ley killed? As a commentator, Kem Ley was critical, but no more so than most political analysts in this country. He was a respected and regular voice on a medium that remains the chief way for people in rural areas to access independent news — but there are numerous broadcasters just as prolific.
Three theories have been put forward. First, Kem Ley’s latest radio interviews, in which he addressed a controversial new Global Witness report on the prime minister’s wealth, could have been a tipping point. Yet his takeaway was not particularly scathing and the topic had been parsed ad nauseum the prior week.
The second possibility is that he simply had the misfortune of being selected messenger for a threat intended for all. It could have been Kem Ley, the theory goes, or it could have been any of a dozen highly revered rights workers and analysts willing to critique the government.
A third motive is that Kem Ley’s nascent political party — the year-old Grassroots Democracy Party — was gaining too much popularity within rural areas seen as ruling party strongholds. Though the national election is still two years off, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling party government has been doing everything in its power to weaken political opponents. It won the 2013 vote by its smallest margin ever in a contested election that saw six months of opposition-led mass protests. The past year has seen violent assaults on opposition parliamentarians and politically motivated court cases against opposition leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha. Today Rainsy, the party president, lives in self-imposed exile in France while Sokha, the party deputy, has been forced to take refuge inside party headquarters for over a month. Kem Ley’s Grassroots Domestic Party may be a mite compared to the Cambodia National Rescue Party, but anything that can pull votes from the Cambodian People’s Party poses a real threat.
As news of the event trickled out via social media, hundreds of Cambodians gathered at the crime scene. Most came brandishing smartphones. Whatever you aim to cover up, the crowd was saying, you will not get away with it.
For the onlookers, who ranged in age from children to the elderly, there was no doubt it was the government who was behind the killing. The modus operandi echoed that of the 2008 killing of journalist Khim Sambo, the 2004 killing of outspoken unionist Chea Vichea, the 2003 killing of royalist party official Om Radsady, and many more. In each case, a government critic was shot in broad daylight. In each case, the motives provided by the alleged killers were riddled with contradictions.
“This is the same pattern,” a bystander told me. “So everyone knows who is behind it. People who have no power cannot do like that. This is the face of dictatorship.”
When Kem Ley’s body was finally moved five hours after his death the crowd cheered. Slowly, growing in number as it moved, a procession followed the car to a pagoda on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. By the time it arrived, more than 5,000 people had joined. If Kem Ley’s murder was political, noted many, it had inadvertently unleashed the largest gathering seen since post-election protests. Already, people are beginning to come from across the country to pay their respects.
Hun Sen and his government claim to be saddened by the loss and have vowed a full-fledged investigation; few believe such statements. No credible investigation came after the other high-profile slayings, and a former police official admitted at least two were almost certainly government set-ups. But what differs now, perhaps crucially, is that all this information has been made instantly available to millions of Cambodians.
Much ink has been spilled about the cyclical nature of Cambodian politics. There is little change in brute force tactics, little change in outcome. It works when dealing with the same players; but does it work with a rapidly changing population?
This is the first high-profile murder to occur in Cambodia since the proliferation of smartphones. Many Cambodians are monitoring the situation and they are sharing their outrage via Facebook and other social media. If the intent of the murder was to scare and silence the populace, it has backfired enormously.
Ms. Abby Seiff is a Southeast Asia-based journalist. Follow her on twitter @instupor.