Tensions remain high in the capital Phnom Penh after the fatal shooting of a prominent political analyst in broad daylight on the morning of July 10. The killing of Kem Ley, a widely popular political commentator and founder of the fledgling Grassroots Democracy Party was met with scenes of mass grief and international condemnation. His death comes in an already troubled political climate, with Cambodia’s political opposition accusing Prime Minister Hun Sen of launching a fresh crackdown against dissenting voices in the lead-up to the 2018 election.
Whilst the gunman responsible has been apprehended and has reportedly confessed to the killing over an unpaid debt, there remains speculation that the murder may be linked to Kem Ley’s trenchant criticism of Cambodia’s political parties. His death comes just days after he spoke out in support of the scathing Global Witness Report released last week, detailing the multi-million-dollar business empire the Hun family has amassed in impoverished Cambodia.
Given the circumstances, several groups have called for independent investigations into the murder. ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) released a statement that claimed
“the circumstances surrounding Kem Ley’s death have left many searching for answers and suspicious of ulterior motives, particularly given his vocal criticism of Cambodia’s political leaders”.
Mania Kiai, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association echoed these sentiments, suggesting that
“circumstances are plainly suspicious given his recent comments in the media about the Global Witness report”.
Meanwhile, the US Department of State issued a statement calling on Cambodian authorities to ensure the imminent legal process is “thorough and impartial” – and warning said authorities that they would be “following developments in this case closely”.
Whilst analysts can only speculate on the true motivations behind Kem Ley’s murder, the incident certainly fits the long-established pattern of politically motivated violence in Cambodia. For many, it has brought to mind slain activists such as union president Chea Vichea and environmental campaigner Chut Wutty, both of whom were shot dead in similar circumstances. Neither of these cases have been resolved satisfactorily. Human rights activists are rightly concerned about this patterns detrimental effect on free speech in the country. Rupert Winchester of the Overseas Press Club of Cambodia (OPCC) said Kem Ley was a trusted source for journalists, with his organisation being
“extremely concerned this killing will have a quieting effect on freedom of speech nation-wide, which is crucial ahead of next year’s commune elections”.
As these concerns continue to manifest, already simmering tensions in Cambodia are threatening to boil over. Both sides of the political divide are likely to attempt to leverage Kem Ley’s death for political gain, with little being done to address the conditions that make Cambodia one of the most dangerous countries in the world for grassroots advocates. The leader of the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), Sam Rainsy was quick to point to political motivations, describing the incident as “another act of state terrorism” and suggesting that Kem Ley was killed “because he apparently represented a political danger for the other side”. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister retaliated by labelling the crime as “heinous” and a “huge loss” that impacts his governments image – casting aspersions as to ‘who benefited’ from the murder.
Kem Ley was critical of both the government and the CNRP and advocated for a new era of clean politics in nation marred by corruption and rampant human rights abuses. Tragically, his loss threatens to push Cambodia further the other way as the 2018 general election approaches.