The thousands who gathered at the gas station where Kem Ley was shot dead on Sunday had little doubt about who was behind the murder of the popular and outspoken critic of the ruling CPP.
The public assassination in broad daylight had the hallmarks of hits on others who have questioned Prime Minister Hun Sen’s rule over the past 31 years, and the large crowd had no one else in mind.
Over the past two days, however, CPP-aligned media have offered a different narrative for the slaying, instead presenting the opposition CNRP—and its deputy leader, Kem Sokha—as the likely culprits.
“The question is—in this situation—who is it that would be happy with the result?” said an article on Kem Ley’s death posted to the popular and CPP-aligned Fresh News website on Monday night.
“There’s only the opposition party, because they have gathered together to squeeze and put a vise on the government [by saying] that because of poor control of public order, a homicide easily happened in the city.”
Authored by “A Special Group,” the piece was quickly shared on Facebook by Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan. It argued that Kem Ley’s slaying had only caused problems for Mr. Hun Sen—and that Mr. Sokha had grown suspicious of the analyst.
“Secret information from a person close to [CNRP President] Sam Rainsy who clearly knows the tricks of Kem Sokha leaked last month that Kem Ley went to meet Kem Sokha at the CNRP’s headquarters to visit and express his pity,” the article said.
Mr. Sokha has been in the party’s headquarters since May 26 when police attempted to arrest him in relation to a sex scandal authorities have been prosecuting. No further arrest attempts have been made, and he has been praised for staring down the threats.
The article said Kem Ley’s visit took place as Mr. Sokha’s courage waned and was “a show of support for Kem Sokha that he ‘absolutely does not need to surrender or be fearful about any legal threats’ and that he believed Kem Sokha’s actions must be firm.”
“The secret news lets us know that after the meeting with Dr. Kem Ley and his wife, Kem Sokha thought that ‘Kem Ley appearing at this time may be him seizing the chance to fight to influence the opposition party with the goal of leading the party,’” it said, quoting the anonymous source.
“The person close to Sam Rainsy added that Kem Sokha considered Kem Ley to be a traitor,” it added.
The article claimed that Kem Ley’s suspected killer, who has been identified as 43-year-old Oeuth Ang, was in fact a bodyguard hired by CNRP security chief Long Ry to protect Mr. Sokha.
“It has become known that this perpetrator named Oeuth Ang was invited by a high-ranking person in the CNRP called ‘Ry’ to become a bodyguard to protect Kem Sokha at the CNRP’s headquarters,” it said.
“A few days later, all of a sudden he is seen being arrested in relation to the murder of Kem Ley,” the article continued. “This information is a clue.”
Fresh News is routinely the first outlet to publish official government documents, including last year’s court order for Mr. Rainsy to be jailed for two years, and has been publicly praised by Mr. Hun Sen, who often gives exclusive interviews to the site.
It has nonetheless denied an official relationship with the CPP, and Fresh News CEO Lim Cheavutha again denied any links on Tuesday when asked if someone in the government had penned the latest piece.
“I would like to say, in brief, that I don’t blame anyone for being behind [this article] but it is people’s expression and the public’s opinion,” he said.
Yet the article closely matched comments about Kem Ley’s death made in a public speech on Monday by Mr. Hun Sen, who warned against politicizing the issue before appearing to blame the CNRP.
“Who would benefit and who would lose from this tragedy?” Mr. Hun Sen asked, claiming his government was suffering “while one side says it is not capable of providing security for its citizens and others say that the incident is politically motivated.”
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said he was not aware of the Fresh News article but had received the same information about the CNRP being behind Kem Ley’s death due to a desire to cast aspersions on the ruling party.
“The government and the ruling party feel so sorry for the shooting death of Dr. Kem Ley. It is a big loss for the government and the ruling party,” Mr. Eysan said. “What we don’t want to occur, the opposition group wants because they want things to occur to place the blame on the government.”
Mr. Siphan’s Facebook post sharing the Fresh News article on Monday was “liked” by many CPP figures, but he said by telephone that the piece did not represent the government’s official stance on Kem Ley’s death.
“Well, I didn’t say anything. I just shared it,” he said. “I will leave it to the competent authorities and courts, but a number of rumors have been talking about this and the CPP gets nothing from this assassination.”
“I don’t accuse anyone [of the murder], unless the authorities find out who is behind it,” he added.
Mr. Ry, the CNRP security chief, said he had not seen the article and declined to comment.
Mr. Rainsy, the opposition leader, said he believed the CPP wanted to see what the reaction would be if all the clues about Mr. Ang, the alleged killer, somehow pointed to the CNRP.
“They are testing the waters to see whether or to what extent anybody would swallow their ridiculous stories intended to divert people’s attention from real facts and evidence,” Mr. Rainsy said by email. “They are actually and cynically adding insult to injury.”
“On the contrary, this would backfire on them, showing their real intention to mislead people and their involvement in Kem Ley’s murder. They should have learned from the time when they accused me of organizing the March 30, 1997, grenade attack.”
The attack on a rally in Phnom Penh killed at least 16 people, and Mr. Hun Sen said Mr. Rainsy, who almost died in the attack, planned it to make him look bad. An FBI investigation instead tentatively pointed the finger at Mr. Hun Sen’s personal bodyguards.
Mr. Rainsy added that he believed it was absurd to suggest that Mr. Sokha had wanted to murder Kem Ley.
“Kem Ley was privately but effectively helping the CNRP draft its political platform. He was particularly close to Kem Sokha. It’s nonsense that the latter might have thought of killing the former,” he said.
“A stronger CNRP with Kem Ley onboard on the eve of the next elections would be a real danger for the CPP. We know Hun Sen likes to make preemptive moves,” he added.
Monday’s Fresh News piece was not the only one blaming the CNRP for killing Kem Ley. Another, published by Cambodia Express News on Tuesday, claimed to show images of his killer at a CNRP meeting—but was ridiculed on social media when another man complained that it was in fact him.
On Sunday, only hours after Kem Ley’s death, Soy Sopheap, the proprietor of the Deum Ampil news site and a known “fixer” for Mr. Hun Sen, also penned a piece claiming that Kem Ley approached him about meeting Mr. Hun Sen and that he had arranged for the two to meet this weekend.
Fresh News said this was more evidence that the CPP could not be behind Kem Ley’s murder.
When he was alive, the popular analyst was often deeply suspicious of the CPP’s claims, characterizing strange political events as part of a highly choreographed “game” of the party. In April, he had applied the same lens to its aggressive pursuit of Mr. Sokha since Mr. Rainsy fled Cambodia last year.
“It is nothing new,” Kem Ley said of the CPP’s attacks on CNRP leaders at the time. “They cannot get their popularity back, they cannot win back the hearts of the people, so they have only this: break down the opposition and take back control of the country.”