As the mob closed in near Phnom Penh’s Aeon Mall on Sunday morning and military police raised their weapons, Oeut Ang withdrew his gun from his waist band and tossed it on the street.
According to three witnesses, the 44-year-old former soldier, ex-monk and environmental officer, looking frightened and exhausted and to the point of being only able to run in short bursts, made it another 50 metres before they caught him outside Svay Porpea pagoda on Sothearos Boulevard.
“The people started beating him. If the police did not stop them, he would have died,” said 36-year-old tuk-tuk driver Pheara.
“[The beating] lasted about five minutes; then they put him on a police motorbike and took him away,” recalled a nearby vendor, who declined to give his name.
Though mob justice is not uncommon in Cambodia, Ang stands accused of one of the most shocking crimes in recent memory.
About 1.5 kilometres away, in the Caltex service station from which Ang had allegedly fled on foot, the body of one of Cambodia’s most well-known political analysts, Kem Ley, lay in a pool of blood.
According to police, a man – yesterday identified by his family as Ang in interviews with the Post – approached the 45-year – old and from about two steps away, allegedly fired two bullets from a Glock handgun, one into his back and another into his head.
In a video confession released online only hours after the crime, Ang – calling himself “Choub Samlab”, which translates in English to “meet to kill” – admitted slaying the analyst, claiming Ley owed him money and had refused to pay.
But as details began to emerge about the suspected gunman, who was yesterday questioned by a prosecutor at Phnom Penh Municipal Court, initial doubts about his purported motive only grew larger.
Speaking from their home in Nokor Pheas commune in Siem Reap’s Angkor Chum district, Ang’s new wife, Hoeum Hout, said she knew nothing of the debt or any motive, adding she didn’t believe reports from fellow villagers that her husband had been arrested for murder until she saw a picture of him in custody on Facebook.
“On July 1, [Ang] told me that he had something to do in Phnom Penh and would be back soon, maybe around July 10,” said Hout, a 45-year-old pork seller, adding that her husband was not acting strangely.
“Since I’ve known him until now, I’ve never heard him mention the name Kem Ley or anything related to him at all.”
Holding a picture of her husband in a uniform and cap with what resembles an insignia for the Forestry Administration with some minor differences, Hout said her husband worked for an environmental NGO, whose name she did not know.
An identification card in a lanyard around Ang’s neck in the photo reads EPDO, which appears to be the Environmental Protection and Development Organization, however, the group’s executive director Uth Samreth yesterday denied the suspect was on staff.
The group, founded in 1998 and funded by USAID and the European Union, according to its website, undertakes agriculture, environmental and rural development projects implemented by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, according to an online job advertisement.
Yesterday, a district official for the Forestry Administration in Siem Reap said Ang had worked on a freelance basis with the Environment Ministry but was “fired a long time ago”.
About two months ago, however, life had started looking up for Ang, villagers said yesterday.
Following a short romance that began before Khmer New Year, the former Khmer Rouge and Royal Cambodian Armed Forces soldier married for the second time, after meeting Hout upon moving to the village earlier this year.
He had not had a good earlier experience with marriage.
According to Nokor Pheas commune chief Poy Bun, after meeting his first wife in 2010, Ang left the military and moved to Thailand for work, returning after about a year to find his wife had a new husband.
After the divorce in 2012, he joined the monkhood and for more than two years resided at three pagodas in Siem Reap before being defrocked in late 2014 after what a senior monk in the commune, Sa Morn, said was a pattern of troubling incidents, including possessing bullets.
Morn said when confronted about the ammunition, the then-monk said they were left by “high-ranking soldiers” who had visited. In another scandal, Morn claimed Ang had had an affair with the daughter of the layman at Peung Ta Non pagoda, with the woman subsequently filing a rape complaint.
However, Bun, the commune chief, said the incident did not involve sexual assault but was a dispute over debt between Ang, the woman and the pagoda’s clergy, which was eventually resolved. “Everyone in this commune is shocked . . . I just know he is a good person in the village,” Bun said, saying Ang had worked as an environmental officer for about one year.
However, Morn, the monk, said he was “frightened” of Ang and recounted one meeting with the then-monk at Peung Ta Non pagoda, a place he said he only visited with a police escort.
“I gave him advice, but he said ‘if anyone makes a problem with me, I will shoot them dead’,” Morn said, before discussing the likelihood of Ley being $3,000 in debt to Ang – the amount claimed by police. “I don’t believe it. He is poor,” he said.
Also in disbelief yesterday, was Ang’s mother, 64-year-old Em Tab, who lives in Nokor Pheas commune’s Tonle Sor village, where her son was born.
“I have never seen any strange behaviour. He visited me once a month, but I never heard him talk anything about [Kem Ley],” she said. “I don’t believe he killed a person in Phnom Penh.”
Talking by phone later in the day, Hout continued to express doubt about the situation, saying she did not believe her husband had acted on his own volition.
“There must have been someone who ordered him to kill him,” she said.
Ang returns to court today, where he is expected to be charged.