Minutes after prominent Cambodian independent political analyst Kem Ley was gunned down in broad daylight, police arrested a “suspect” who had “confessed” to the assassination.
Within hours, a video of the suspect’s interrogation—the man bleeding from the head and scared witless—was released to the TV Station BTV, which is 100 percent owned by the daughter of the Cambodian dictator Hun Sen. The arrested suspect was asked his name by police. “Chuab Samlab,” he answered, lips quivering.
“Chuab Samlab” translates directly in English as “Meet Death” or “Meet Killed.” A more literal translation would be “To be killed upon encountering.”
There is not a mother in Cambodia who would give her son such a name.
Kem Ley’s assassination–and make no mistake, this was a targeted political killing ordered by the highest level ruling powers in Cambodia—is the normal rhythm of life under Hun Sen’s government. There are uncountable precedents of murder that stretch back decades.
“Whenever I make a criticism, I never expect myself to be alive,” Kem Ley said recently.
Trail of Death
Not a single case, out of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of murders carried out by Hun Sen’s regime in the last 30 years has ever been brought to justice. This includes hundreds of political opponents who were murdered during the United Nations-controlled runup to elections in 1993. It includes the 16 killed and more than 100 wounded when government agents with grenades attacked a peaceful rally led by opposition leader Sam Rainsy in March, 1997. It includes the hundreds more who were hunted down, tortured and assassinated three months later in July 1997 when Hun Sen launched a coup d’état and wiped out the opposition to his rule.
It includes numerous others murdered prior to and during the 1998 so-called elections which cemented Hun Sen’s rule in power. And it includes hundreds in the 20 years since that Hun Sen has led his country to the precipice of collapse, an embarrassment to the comparably more-properly organized community of nations in Asia.
“Villagers feel totally helpless as they see no recourse against official arbitrary violence and abuses. Deprived of any means to seek justice, even when their children are taken away and being murdered, they swallow their anger and sadness, bow to the powers that be, accept with resignation their fate and withdraw in silence, knowing after long years of oppressive experience that words can kill,” reads a Confidential UN Center for Human Rights report from 1994 leaked to this reporter.
In August 1994, the opposition newspaper Voice of Khmer Youth published a front-page profile of the wealthy businessman Teng Bunma, accusing him, among other things, of having been arrested for drug smuggling in 1972. The report said he bribed his way out of jail and fled to Thailand. Less than a week after the article appeared, men in military uniforms gunned down its editor in broad daylight on a busy Phnom Penh street. No one has ever been arrested.
In November 1995, the Far Eastern Economic Review published a cover package entitled “Cambodia: Asia’s New Narco-State?” It detailed the Cambodian government’s control over drug trafficking and criminal syndicates. A few days later, Hun Sen, a primary beneficiary of Bunma’s largesse, threatened that “a million demonstrators” might take to the streets to protest foreign interference in Cambodian affairs.
“Diplomats should stay indoors,” he warned. “I cannot guarantee their safety.”
The United States sent a special envoy, then-Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Kent Wiederman, to try to calm the situation. Wiederman emerged from a private meeting with Hun Sen commending the dictator’s “commitment to human rights and democracy.”
The French ambassador, who had just ordered the destruction of sensitive documents because of Hun Sen’s threat, reacted to Wiederman’s praising of Hun Sen by commenting: “What planet did he arrive from?”
Out of touch
The US government and the rest of the donor community remain on that other planet wholly removed from the day-to-day drudgery, oppression and abuse faced by every average Cambodian for the last 30 years.
A State Department spokesman told me on April 14, 1997, that with regard to drug money supporting the Cambodian government, “we are actively looking into reports that corrupt elements of the military and government may be facilitating drug trafficking, but we are not in a position to comment on those reports.”
By that May, the FBI’s preliminary findings had concluded that the terrorists who threw grenades at the peaceful demonstration held by Cambodia’s then most prominent opposition leader, Sam Rainsy, were directly linked to Hun Sen himself, soldiers from his handpicked bodyguard unit. The FBI agents informed then US ambassador Kenneth Quinn that their investigation pointed to some of the prime minister’s top aides, including the head of his personal bodyguards.
Further, the FBI told Quinn the grenade throwers appeared to be part of a paramilitary unit of assassins who were on the payroll of the government and organized crime figures, major Asian heroin traffickers, who bankrolled his government.
The next step, the FBI said, was to interview Hun Sen and give him a polygraph test. Quinn was not pleased at the potential diplomatic ramifications. Within days, he ordered the FBI team to leave Cambodia, citing “threats” to their safety from the Khmer Rouge. The source of the threats? Hun Sen.
“There is no question our investigation was halted by the highest levels because it was leading to Hun Sen,” said one FBI official directly involved in the investigation.