Analyst's Murder Highlights Cambodian Misrule

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.

Quinn and others in the US government privately argued that Cambodia’s stability was already teetering on the brink of civil war. To continue the FBI investigation to its logical conclusion would push the country over the edge, they said. (Quinn did not respond to my request for comment at the time, but later vehemently denied this version of events).

The departure of the FBI team from Phnom Penh, didn’t, of course, help calm things down. It further bolstered those in the government who felt, correctly, that they were capable of intimidating the United States and could act with impunity without harmful diplomatic consequences.

Between the growing fractious deterioration within the Cambodian coalition government, the rising international scrutiny focused directly on Hun Sen from the high-profile grenade attack on Sam Rainsy, and the very public international calls for increased pressure to stem the influence of organized-crime syndicates and drug traffickers over the corrupt Cambodian government, the pressure mounted—and the government imploded.

The old coup

A bloody coup d’état occurred in early July 1997. Hundreds of opposition leaders were hunted down and murdered. Many were said to have been tortured by Hun Sen's forces, their tongues pulled out with pliers under interrogation, their eyes gouged out while alive, their penises cut off and stuffed in their mouth, and worse.

The US$2.8 billion UN peacekeeping effort, which began with the signing of the 1991 Paris Peace Accords and culminated in the 1993 elections, was now formally a failure. Civil war had returned. The winners of the election—Royalist Prince Ranariddh and his supporters—were ousted from power and in exile; the losers—backers of Hun Sen—now had full control. And parliament, the press, opposition politics, a coalition government and other tenets of the “emerging fragile democracy” had collapsed.

The US government refused to officially label the violent overthrow of the elected government a coup d’état. Such a conclusion would require the United States to decertify Cambodia, with all its implications—including cutting off bilateral aid and voting against loans from the IMF, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and other multilateral aid. That would have been the death knell for a government that derived almost half its budget in 1996 from such sources.

Of course, Hun Sen took his lead from the response of the powerful donor governments which propped up his failed state through no strings attached hundreds of millions of dollars in aid.

It all got worse

And things got worse for the Cambodians who had to live under the corrupt thugs who had no skills or interest in running a government, but only in lining their pockets with the profits of selling off the country to the highest foreign bidder.

That state of affairs has been brutally maintained since.

The United States government is as afraid of the former Khmer Rouge military officer, Hun Sen, as the millions of Cambodians who suffer in fear living under the incompetent brutal, rapacious, corrupt failed nation state he controls.

And by the US bending to the threats from an obscure toothless dictator whose decades old modus operandi is to employ his violent thuggery against the weak and vulnerable, the recent US administrations are damaging the reputation of America as a defender of human rights, democratic institutions and the dignity of man by succumbing to the implicit blackmail threats of a tin-pot ruler.

The so-called question at issue is whether to continue to bankroll the egregious Cambodian government repression, mute criticism of their use of murder by US-funded and trained security forces, to keep quiet about the use of intimidation as routine policy by top leaders to line their pockets with corrupt money obtained through subordinating the common good of the nation to line their personal bank accounts.

Hun Sen’s government is demanding the US make excuses for the total subjugation of the judicial system to political dictates as a tool to erase dissent in an amateurish imitation of Singapore and to continue to bankroll him with funds that strengthen and give legitimacy to this crudely transparent farce of democracy or Hun Sen will take the proverbial football and go play only with China. That policy clearly has failed, with Cambodia backing China over the latter's claims of ownership of almost the entire South China Sea

But even if one sets aside the immorality and cowardice of such a stand, it is a policy that has failed in its diplomatic objective. The evidence of such a strategy in which America has lavished hundreds of millions of dollars to finance and strengthen dictatorship, line the pockets of the corrupt leadership and give moral support for the most egregious architect of oppression in Asia today has long proved itself to be a failed strategy.

Last thug standing

Hun Sen, the last thug left standing in power in South East Asia, is shamelessly living off the decades-old fumes of the suffering of Cambodia’s people under Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge as an excuse to maintain the most murderous and corrupt government remaining in Southeast Asia.

And the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations, acting like a gaggle of easily impressionable high school students, have fallen for the ruse as the Cambodian government snickers derisively while consolidating its control of a government propped up by the misguided sympathy and money provided by the countries that effectively pay for any services normally provided by a state while its rapacious leaders stuff their pockets with the change.

Cambodia is a failed state. Not because it needs to be, but rather because its leaders put their personal interests in front of the common good and they are aided and abetted by the wealthy nations, who more than 30 years after this strategy was first employed still fall hook, line, and sinker for it.

Anyone who objects to Hun Sen is humiliated, intimidated, sued, imprisoned, or, if necessary, murdered. The net result is this has empowered a cabal of thugs, overwhelmingly dominated by former loyalists of Pol Pot, to create a personal fiefdom to enrich themselves, their families, and their minions.

The good people of Cambodia meanwhile suffer unspeakably.

Why play with these guys?

And the most offensive aspect of this reality is that Cambodia is a country where the United States along with the rest of the planet has virtually no strategic, economic, tactical or strategic interest. There is no more cold war. There are no significant powerful business interests to kowtow to. There is no war or insurgency that needs to be quelled. In sum, there is no downside to standing up for the principles of freedom and the dignity of the rights of man in Cambodia. If the US cannot do so in Cambodia, where else on the planet will they? If they cannot stand on the side of human and political rights in Cambodia today, when will they ever in that cursed nation or elsewhere?

Cambodia is surrounded by economically booming countries. The region has gone from 18 separate wars 20 years ago to zero today. The cold war is over and there are no proxy armies fighting the interests of larger regional or superpowers using Cambodian territory as a hot theater. Cambodia and its people have suffered unspeakably under a series of egregious thuggish regimes.

There is no downside to standing up for the principles of democracy, human rights, free speech and a free press in the face of corruption and abuse by those with money, guns, and political power who deny citizens the equal ability to access the economic, educational and human opportunities to live a peaceful life free from want and fear.

It all continues

In the recent past hundreds of voices of dissent have been silenced by government enforcers. Hundreds have been murdered directly for expressing opinions. Journalists have been assassinated, jailed, sued, and forced into exile. Opposition politicians have been victims of the same tactics and fate.

Prominent environmentalists have been killed. Thousands of peasants have been forced off their land without compensation, scores shot, and jailed for objecting. Buddhist monks have been threatened with arrest. The main political opposition leaders have been silenced, threatened, murdered, and forced into exile. Many of them have been accused of preposterous crimes for objecting.

This last week serves as just the latest example. It is nothing new to Cambodians who have to live under these terms every day. Global Witness, the respected watchdog agency, released a damning, impeccably sourced report detailing how Hun Sen and his family have created a government run by organized crime where a small cabal of families who rule the Cambodian People’s Party control an overwhelming majority of the wealth.

As has been the norm for decades, Hun Sen fired back. He threatened to throw the main opposition leader, Kem Sokha, who has been holed up in his political party office for weeks, in jail “for life.”

Then the dictator reacted to the Global witness report, which laid out the systematic corruption which has enriched his family—former peasant rice farmers—to the tune of at least $200 million, and up to $2 billion. Pro Hun Sen newspapers, owned by his daughter, Hun Mana, accused English language papers of conspiring as “opposition political parties” to overthrow his government and threatened to close them down and bring criminal charges that would put journalists in jail.

Kem Ley had commented on the ratcheting up of threats by Hun Sen only four days ago, saying Hun Sen was happy for people to understand he was ordering the courts to arrest his opponents.

“He does not care about that. Everybody knows it,” Kem Ley said. “Even the children know everything is in the hands of the strongman. It is the prime minister who provides the evidence that the government interferes in the judiciary. His words before judgments, before arrests and before trials, or this threat to send someone to jail for life—this is the great evidence of interference."

Nate Thayer is a legendary journalist who covered Cambodia for the Far Eastern Economic Review and was present at Pol Pot' death.