Angkor Chum district, Siem Reap province – Late last week, Um Oeung received a call from his friend Oeuth Ang. It had been about 10 days since Mr. Ang up and left their sleepy village in Siem Reap province.
“I asked him, ‘What are you doing now?’” Mr. Oeung said on Tuesday, sitting outside his friend’s house after being interviewed by police.
“He said, ‘I am a soldier in Phnom Penh.’”
Mr. Ang sounded upbeat, he said, so he started joking with him, asking if he could find him a similar job in the capital.
“I told him: ‘You have a job and a salary; help me get one too!’”
Then the line went dead. He tried to call his friend back, but it would not go through.
The next time he saw Mr. Ang he was on television, being paraded in front of the media on Sunday afternoon after being arrested for the execution-style slaying of popular political commentator Kem Ley that morning.
Mr. Ang entered the convenience store at the Caltex gas station at the intersection of Monivong and Mao Tse Toung boulevards and fired two bullets, one into Kem Ley’s head and another into his chest, according to police.
The shooter fled the scene on foot and was eventually chased down by a mob of police and citizens near Aeon Mall. He was beaten bloody before police pulled him away from the crowd. The man gave his name as “Chuop Samlap,” which translates as “Meet Kill,” and a video of him confessing appeared online within hours of his arrest.
Mr. Oeung said he was stunned to recognize the man admitting to the horrific murder, which most believe to have been a politically motivated killing.
“When I saw him I was so shocked because he went there to kill him. He didn’t know Kem Ley,” he said. “He said he had just gone to be a soldier in Phnom Penh.”
Mr. Oeung said he first met Mr. Ang, 43, in 1988 when they were both serving in the army under the Vietnamese-backed People’s Republic of Kampuchea. The two spoke occasionally during the two decades after leaving the army but lost touch for a while when Mr. Ang went to find work in Thailand. Mr. Ang returned to the province about three years ago and joined the monkhood, living in three pagodas before returning to civilian life.
Mr. Oeung said he ran into his former comrade again when Mr. Ang started working with a local nongovernmental group, the Environmental Protection and Development Organization. Inside Mr. Ang’s house, he showed reporters a booklet bearing the NGO’s logo and photographs of Mr. Ang in his monk robes.
Representatives from the organization could not be reached.
Everyone interviewed in tiny Nokor Pheas village, surrounded by lush green rice paddies, spoke of their shock upon seeing their quiet neighbor accused of the country’s most high-profile murder since union leader Chea Vichea was assassinated in 2004.
Speaking beneath their home, Hoeum Hort, 45, who calls herself Mr. Ang’s wife even though the two were never formally wed, said her husband seemed relaxed when he told her that he needed to visit a close friend in Phnom Penh.
“The last time I saw him, he said he was going to meet his god- brother in Phnom Penh. I can’t remember exactly, but it was around 10 days ago,” Ms. Hort said.
“When he arrived in Phnom Penh, he called me and asked if I had eaten yet. He sounded normal, nothing strange. He stopped calling me on the 10th,” she said, the same day Kem Ley was gunned down.
Ms. Hort said she was struggling to come to terms with the idea that her husband had killed the analyst, particularly because she does not believe they knew each other. Mr. Ang claims to have killed Mr. Ley over a $3,000 debt.
“I’m very sad. I can’t believe he did it. I can’t read his mind. When he stayed at the house, he wouldn’t even kill a chicken,” she said.
“He didn’t know about Kem Ley and never spoke about Kem Ley.”
Other neighbors and relatives echoed these claims, saying that Mr. Ang kept cordial relations in the community and would often help out his neighbors, either through personal kindness or in his role with the NGO.
However, chief monks at local pagodas where Mr. Ang stayed between 2013 and 2015 gave a very different account of the alleged assassin this week.
“His character is very bad,” said Nai Noeun, chief monk at Wat Chum Kampor in Doun Peng commune.
After about a year and a half of tense relations with leaders of the tiny pagoda, driven largely by Mr. Ang pocketing money collected from locals, Mr. Ang left in late 2014, he said.
“He always went to collect money from locals and would spend it on things for himself, like phone credit,” Nai Noeun said.
About 15 km away, situated at the foot of a densely wooded hill in remote Kok Doung commune, Tor Nhil, 26, a monk at Wat Peung Tanann, painted an even more sinister picture of Mr. Ang.
After arriving in April 2014, Mr. Ang beat young monks and threatened to shoot anyone who defrocked him during his 18 months at the pagoda, according to Tor Nhil.
“He would say, ‘If I am defrocked, I will shoot you dead,’” Tor Nhil said, standing among fellow monks and villagers. “He said he used to be a soldier and that if he had to shoot someone he would do it.”
Asked how seriously he took Mr. Ang’s threats, the monk said he didn’t know what to think.
“We thought there was a 50 percent chance he might do it,” he said.
“He didn’t use much violence, but he would intimidate people and would sometimes beat the young monks. He would beat them with sticks and microphones when the young monks would not listen to him.”
Mr. Ang also told other monks of his links to high-ranking men in the military and police, he said.
“He used to say he knew top commanders and police chiefs in Phnom Penh,” he said, adding that nobody pushed Mr. Ang for names.
Defense Ministry spokesman Chhum Socheat said the name Oeuth Ang did not appear on the military’s list of employees.
Oddly, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court charged Mr. Ang with premeditated murder this week using the name Chuop Samlap, an apparent alias, and giving his age as 38.
Back in Nokor Pheas, Mr. Ang’s mother, Ek Tab, 64, said she was struggling to come to terms with her son’s situation. “I thought, ‘Why did you do that? When you lived here, you did nothing like that,’” said Ms. Tab, adding that she last saw her son in May when he visited her to drop off some money.
“People think that maybe someone ordered him to do that. I never taught him to behave like that,” she said. “I think if someone hadn’t ordered him to do it, he would never have done it.”
Tor Nhil, the younger monk, did not express the same disbelief at the notion that Mr. Ang could have killed a man, but nonetheless agreed that it was probably done on someone else’s orders.
“I believe he is the killer because he always said if someone opposed him he would shoot,” he said.
“He said when he was a soldier, he would respect his boss when told to do something. When ordered, he would always follow it through.”