Nhem Saroeun, a tough-looking, tattooed construction worker, sits on the floor of his riverside home in Kandal’s Ponhea Leu district.
Red-eyed but stoic, he stares at the belongings scattered in front of him: two faded white shirts and two hats bearing logos of the Cambodia National Rescue Party.
A box with a small pile of party stickers and a yellow head scarf emblazoned with the words “My vote, my life” sits nearby.
These were the treasured possessions of Saroeun’s late son, 19-year-old Nhem Panha, whose dead body was found floating in a fishing net more than two kilometres away from his home village of Prek Taprom in Kampong Os commune on September 17.
“My son was very active in supporting the opposition party, and I think that his killing has something to do with his politics,” Saroeun said yesterday.
“K’chong gave almost everything to the opposition party,” he added, using the family’s pet name for his late son, meaning “snail”. In a wooden picture frame to Saroeun’s left sits a grainy, pixelated photo of Panha taken on a friend’s mobile phone on September 14, one day before he was killed.
Although Panha’s features – and the number 7 he had shaved into his hair – can barely be made out in the picture, it’s the only photo the family of eight has of their beloved brother and son.
Panha was hacked in the head and neck with an axe and likely dragged into the river by two people on the night of September 15, according to investigators from rights group Adhoc.
He was walking home from a friend’s house a few kilometres away and had attended the CNRP’s mass demonstration in Phnom Penh that same day.
A well-liked youngster and a known activist, Panha had decorated his motorbike with CNRP regalia during the election campaign and would drive around trying to drum up support for local rallies, his parents said.
Despite that, his family and friends maintain the teenager had no known enemies in their community and had never received any direct threats. Panha was at a party rally where a scuffle broke out between rival CNRP and ruling party supporters on July 15, though his family says he was not involved in the fighting.
Still, they claim that ruling party supporters from the Cham ethnic minority living in the nearby Chri Andeth village had been out to get prominent opposition activists since the incident.
“Two Cham CPP-supporting siblings had been asking where he was from and were trying to find him,” Saroeun said.
“They had gone to see his friend’s father to ask about his whereabouts soon before he was killed.… [They also] asked my nephew to tell them when he was in the area and threatened they would do something when they found him.”
Panha was planning to walk through Chri Andeth village on his way home the evening he was killed.
According to his parents, a friend he was with warned him about going home that way.
“His friend told him ‘Don’t go, aren’t you afraid that a Cham will hit you or fight you?’” Saroeun said.
Men Makara, provincial investigator for Adhoc, said he had also found that two Cham men had been asking about Panha the day before he was killed.
“But we do not know why they were looking for him. I asked many villagers who claimed that [Panha] had never had any argument with anyone in the community,” he said.
While Panha’s parents have no clear evidence that his killing was politically motivated, they accuse local authorities of not adequately investigating the case because of their well-known political affiliations.
“I am not happy that police get salary from the people but they don’t find justice for people like us,” Lay Sokha, Panha’s mother, said.
The family also claims that the police have still not interviewed them as part of their investigation.
Chhey Srang, the Ponhea Leu district deputy police chief, rejected those allegations yesterday, but said the case was difficult as the body was found far away from the crime scene.
“We do not think about this and that party member. We are investigating to properly deal with this case, but it did not occur inside our area,” Srang said.
“Do not just say that we did not question the bereaved family members. We questioned all relevant people. We worked hard.”