A cover-up was inevitable. That was the view of the thousands who turned out, grieving, to the Caltex petrol station on July 10 after learning that Kem Ley had been shot dead inside at point-blank range.
“It’s the car of the killer,” mourners chanted upon the arrival of an ambulance from the Cambodian Red Cross, a body run by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s wife, as they blocked efforts by authorities to take the corpse for fear they would sanitise a murder they saw as political.
The outspoken political analyst’s body lay inside the service station for about six hours until the agitated crowd of about 5,000 overwhelmed the police and carried the body to the safety of his family’s pagoda and away from anyone who might attempt a cover-up.
Yet in the three months to the day that Kem Ley was murdered and police arrested a suspect who initially gave his name as the eerie Choub Samlab – or “Meet Kill” – authorities have seemed reluctant to do much to reveal who was behind the assassination.
“We have been very disappointed,” Sam Inn, a longtime friend of Ley, said yesterday. “There has not been any reliable information about why he was murdered, and who really was the killer, and the public needs that information and an explanation.”
Inn, secretary-general of the Grassroots Democracy Party that Ley established, said that few people were surprised by the lack of urgency around an investigation into the murder of a ruling party critic, pointing to the impunity after the 2004 slaying of union leader Chea Vichea and 2012 slaying of forestry activist Chhut Wutty.
“It is a regularity in the Cambodian justice system, and the public has lost trust in the government to find justice for that kind of killing, especially when the killing is related to politics,” Inn said yesterday. “Somehow, there will not be much information about that.”
Prime Minister Hun Sen and his government have repeatedly denied claims – including from opposition leader Sam Rainsy – that they were behind the killing, but the silence about the investigation has only helped stoke suspicions they have no interest in uncovering the truth.
A video uploaded on Facebook in August showed “Chuob Samlab”, who claims to have murdered Ley over a $3,000 debt, running from the scene and interacting with a plain-clothed man on a police motorbike before finally being driven away after volunteering to mount the bike unrestrained.
“There is no transparency at all about the investigation,” said Prince Sisowath Thomico, himself an outspoken critic of the government. The prince said that he believed few people could throw away their suspicions about the murder absent a transparent inquiry.
“There is one big thing missing in the investigation – it is the security camera. No one has heard about the security camera, and so the whole process is not credible and the public does not believe in them,” he said.
There were few reasons, Thomico said, for authorities not to release the footage, as they have in past high-profile murders like the brazen shooting of businessman Ung Meng Cheu in November 2014.
“The only reason I can see is that they want to cover something up,” he said. “That’s the only reason. Otherwise, why should they hide the camera footage?”
Neither Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak nor National Police spokesman Kirth Chantharith could be reached yesterday. However, Sopheak previously said that an uncooperative suspect in Chuob Samlap was slowing the investigation.
“Our law cannot do anything to him unless we do it in a peaceful way. What I understand is, if we call in Comrade Duch, he would make a confession,” Sopheak said about a month after the murder, referring to the Khmer Rouge torture centre chief.
There have been few updates since then. Yet it has not only been the sparse investigations into Ley’s murder that has revealed a seeming lack of concern from authorities – officials have also repeatedly denied requests for public tributes for the analyst.
Early last week, Phnom Penh City Hall rejected a request to hold a traditional ceremony at the central Wat Botum park marking 100 days since Ley’s funeral, and then on Friday rejected a request to hold one at Chroy Changvar district’s Wat Chas pagoda, where Ley previously laid in wake.
Khuong Sreng, a deputy city governor, said yesterday he was simply not convinced that the former friends of Ley who have been organising his funeral have the best intentions in mind, suggesting they may be stoking grief for their own benefit.
“If we scrutinise this funeral, it might not be a traditional funeral. It is set up differently, and could it be seen as a political thing, or for money collection?” Sreng said, also asking why the funeral committee had sought permission instead of Ley’s wife.
His wife, Bou Rachana, recently gave birth to her fifth son while in hiding overseas, and said in a message to the Social Breaking News service over the weekend that she could not understand why funeral proceedings for her husband keep being prohibited.
Others officials, meanwhile, have at times been outright hostile when asked about Ley, saying the commentator, who grew popular for his folksy political explanations on radio, did not deserve the hero-worship he has received – or the expectations of public funerals.
“He’s not a public figure; he’s just an outspoken person. He’s not like the King or someone like that,” said Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan yesterday, adding that those mourning Ley should not expect special treatment for his funeral.
“Those people cannot just appoint him a hero. It is not the jungle,” the spokesman explained. “He’s just a private person. If anyone wants to treat him as a god, go ahead, and if you want to respect him as a hero, go ahead. But don’t impose it on the nation.”
However, for Inn, the longtime friend, the outpouring of grief for Ley was unsurprising not only given his “legacy of braveness and telling the truth to the public”, but also because his murder stands as a crystallisation of a growing tension in Cambodia.
“On the one side, you have the government choosing tactics of suppression rather than reforms to attract the public support, and meanwhile you have more and more youth becoming dissatisfied with the way the government has handled the country,” Inn said.
“Those kind of youth are not very much afraid, and they aspire for change,” he added. “These two trends together are very concerning for the country.”