A pair of activist brothers who met with prominent political analyst Kem Ley two days before he was gunned down flew to Thailand on Thursday in apparent fear for their safety.
Chum Huor and Chum Huot met with Kem Ley last Saturday at the convenience store where he was killed on Sunday, and they claim to have seen people spying on them. They posted a photograph of themselves to their shared Facebook page on Thursday showing them seated on a Bangkok Airways flight, passports in hand.
“Just the pair of clothes we’re wearing,” they wrote in a message attached to the photo. “We are forced to leave with shocked emotions. Bye Cambodia.”
The night before, the brothers also posted a photo of themselves, apparently in hiding.
“We [are] not safe now and stay somewhere,” they wrote.
On Tuesday, Kem Ley’s widow, Bou Rachana, told reporters that she hoped to relocate her family in the wake of her husband’s assassination because she feared for her own life. Ms. Rachana has four young sons and is pregnant with a fifth.
A popular and outspoken government critic, Kem Ley, 46, was gunned down inside a gas station convenience store at the busy intersection of Monivong and Mao Tse Toung boulevards on Sunday morning. The suspected shooter was soon arrested a few blocks away and quickly confessed to killing Kem Ley for refusing to pay back a $3,000 loan.
But the brazen daylight attack has been met with widespread suspicion of a government-ordered hit, meant either to intimidate critics of the long-ruling CPP or smear the opposition ahead of elections in 2017 and 2018.
The families of Kem Ley and the arrested suspect have said they are unaware of any relationship between the two men whatsoever, let alone of an unresolved debt.
Some of those who met with Kem Ley in the days before his murder have said the analyst believed he was being shadowed, and claim to have seen the signs themselves.
On July 9, Kem Ley and the Chum brothers both posted photos of them together at the convenience store, where the analyst liked to have coffee and meet with acquaintances.
On Wednesday, Hun Vannak, a member of the Youth for Social and Environmental Protection activist group along with the brothers, said he was also at that meeting and that the twins had felt they were being watched by a group of three men at another table. He said the brothers aired their suspicions in an interview outside the store in the hours after the murder and later became worried the publicity might draw unwelcome attention.
On Thursday, Mr. Vannak declined to discuss the circumstances of the brothers’ departure or their imminent plans.
“Our group held a meeting and decided not to provide any information about the twins’ whereabouts because we are concerned about their security,” he said.
The brothers did not reply to requests for comment.
Activist monk But Buntenh, who met the brothers at the U.S. Embassy on Wednesday, said Mr. Huor and Mr. Huot were worried about being targeted because of the men they saw at the store during their meeting with Kem Ley.
“I think [they left] because they are young and they are afraid,” he said.
But the firebrand monk, who has attracted the government’s ire with his own scathing critiques of the ruling CPP, said he believed the brothers were overreacting, and that he had advised them to stay.
“Everywhere I am going, people follow me and photograph me…. But we don’t think much about them,” he said.
But Buntenh said he was at the embassy to arrange a visa for a trip to the U.S. he had planned before Kem Ley’s murder.
On Wednesday, the Chum brothers said they were called to the embassy to discuss the murder; they were seen entering the compound but could not be reached afterward. Mr. Vannak, who dropped them off and picked them up, said the twins told him that embassy officials questioned them about their relationship with Kem Ley.
The embassy declined to discuss the brothers’ visit.
“The U.S. Embassy regularly meets with a variety of individuals to discuss a range of issues. As a general rule, we do not publicly share the content of those discussions,” said embassy spokesman Courtney Woods.
Mr. Huor and Mr. Huot have taken up a number of causes in recent years that have aligned them against the government. In July 2015, the brothers were among six people who were briefly detained outside the National Assembly for protesting in chains and prison garb.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court charged the suspected killer on Wednesday under his apparent alias of Chuop Samlap—which translates as “Meet Kill”—with premeditated murder and illegal weapons possession.
Authorities in Siem Reap province, however, have identified the man as local resident Oeuth Ang, 43, a former soldier and monk who most recently worked for an environmental organization.
The court also laid an illegal weapons charge against the individual who allegedly sold the suspected killer the gun used to shoot Kem Ley, but authorities have refused to identify the person.
(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)