Chuor Chetharith, 37, an editor and reporter with the pro-Funcinpec radio station Ta Prohm FM 90.5 was shot dead by gunmen on Saturday morning outside the station’s offices in the Chamkar Mon district of Phnom Penh.
The execution-style killing comes just days after Prime Minister Hun Sen publicly warned Ta Prohm radio that it should cease broadcasting insulting programs that specialized in critically dissecting and pouring scorn on his speeches.
Deploring what it branded as another “purely politically motivated” killing, Funcinpec and the Sam Rainsy Party announced Saturday they were pulling out of talks scheduled for this morning with the CPP that were called by King Norodom Sihanouk to end the political impasse.
The assassination of Chuor Chetharith added further impetus for the removal of Hun Sen as prime minister, the Alliance of Democrats said in their statement.
Deepening the conspiracy behind the journalist’s killing, CPP spokesman Khieu Kanharith said the timing of the shooting—just days after the prime minister’s comments—was almost too coincidental to be plausible.
Chuor Chetharith, who was also an official in the Ministry of Interior, was the first journalist killed since 1997, and becomes at least the seventh member of the press killed in the last decade.
At 8:15 am Saturday, Chuor Chetharith parked his Toyota Camry a few meters from the villa that houses the radio station on Street 472, several streets south of Phsar Tuol Tumpong. As he locked his car door, a Honda C125 motorbike drove past with two young men wearing every-day clothes and soft, fisherman-style hats. The driver turned the motorcycle in front of Chour Chetharith and the passenger alighted with a K59 pistol.
He coolly walked toward the journalist, pointed the muzzle of his handgun at a point between the nape of the neck and base of the skull and fired a single shot at point blank range, witnesses said on Saturday.
The assailants drove slowly away from the victim, said one teenager who was standing nearby.
“They drove away at a normal speed,” said the teenager who, concerned for his safety, declined to reveal his name. No one confronted the assailants as the passenger was still holding the handgun aloft as they drove away, the teenager said.
Senior Funcinpec officials flocked to the station shortly after the shooting. A heart-rendering scene of anguish unfolded as Chuor Chetharith’s wife, infant child and elderly mother arrived to find their loved-one’s body face down on the roadside in a pool of congealing blood.
Chuor Chetharith’s widow was helped away from the scene but eventually collapsed and was carried to a waiting vehicle and whisked away.
Serey Kosal, adviser to Funcinpec President Prince Norodom Ranariddh, was the first royalist official to emerge from the radio station where several top leaders had gathered including Khan Savoeun, RCAF deputy commander-in-chief, Minister of Information Lu Laysreng, Minister of Women’s Affairs Mu Sochua, RCAF General Por Bun Sreu and others.
“This is the new model of intimidation,” Serey Kosal told reporters. Asked his thoughts on the killing coming so soon after Hun Sen’s verbal attack on the radio station, Serey Kosal said, “You know [the answer] to what you asked.”
Lu Laysreng initially refused to comment but when pressed by reporters, he responded emotionally, pointing to the puddle of blood: “Look at this blood. This is Khmer blood. This is Cambodian blood,” he said.
“I am very sorry that Cambodian blood keeps flowing away again and again. This murder is very barbarous. The killers are very strong against their [own] Khmer people.”
Deputy Municipal Police Chief Heng Pov was the most senior police official to arrive at the scene. But he left soon after when radio station staff refused to speak with him. “They have not been cooperative with police,” Heng Pov told reporters before departing.
On Sunday, Heng Pov confirmed the victim was killed with a single bullet to the back of the neck. Heng Pov said he could not speculate on the motive for the killing as the police investigation needed statements from radio station staff. The staff have agreed to speak to police on Monday, Heng Pov added.
Ta Prohm Radio Director Noranarith Anandayath, an adviser to Prince Norodom Ranariddh, said on Saturday he had also received threats and believed the killing may have been a case of mistaken identity as he drove a vehicle similar to the victim.
Noranarith Anandayath said: “I am going to let the people make their judgment [on the motive].”
Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said on Sunday the death of the journalist should not have derailed Monday’s scheduled talks at the Royal Palace.
“It is a very strange coincidence, and they didn’t shoot an announcer or director, but an anonymous reporter. And if you compare the level of violence with 1998 [post-election negotiations], it is a very pale excuse to pull out of talks,” Khieu Kanharith said.
“It might be some political parties do not want to be pressured by the King. I think that when the King convenes the meeting, some political parties must not be happy because the King can propose a solution,” he said.
“In 1998 there is a very high concentration of violence and now there is only one killing.”
Funcinpec spokesman Kassie Neou said it was “ridiculous” for the CPP to imply a conspiracy by other political parties to sabotage the talks.
“As a spokesperson I don’t like to presume things, I like to state fact. The fact is that there have been threats on the phone and some members of Ta Prohm have been followed and two days before this assassination, the prime minister made threats in the public,” Kassie Neou said.
“I state fact. So what somebody else says in ridiculous,” he said.
Sam Rainsy Party spokesman Ung Bun-Ang said the killing would strengthen the opposition’s resolve to remove Hun Sen who appeared to be skilled at predicting tragedy.
Several days before the Jan 29 anti-Thai riots, the prime minister had railed against a Thai actress in a public speech. Many believe the premier’s verbal attack may have provided the impetus for the riots.
“Hun Sen is a very good fortune teller,” Ung Bun-Ang said.
King Norodom Sihanouk, the US State Department, human rights groups and journalist associations issued statements over the weekend condemning the killing.
“It’s a great shame for our second Kingdom of Cambodia to have to undergo the proliferation of assassinations of undeniably political motivation,” the King said in a statement posted on his Web site Sunday. The perpetrators were unlikely to be found or punished, the King wrote.
The King contributed $2,000 to the family of Chuor Chetharith to help with funeral expenses.
“The United States calls on the Cambodian government to take effective action to investigate this crime and bring the perpetrators to justice,” Adam Ereli, State Department deputy spokesman, said in a statement on Saturday.
“A culture of impunity in Cambodia must not be tolerated. We also urge the Cambodian government to take steps to ensure the security of Cambodian journalists, including those working at Ta Prohm radio,” he added.
“This violent act is yet another indicator that Cambodia is ruled by lawlessness,” Kek Galabru, president of local human right group Licadho, wrote in a statement on behalf of the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, an umbrella group of 17 rights NGOs.
Chuor Chetharith’s body was taken to Funcinpec headquarters on Saturday afternoon. On Sunday, relatives, friends and royalist officials paid their last respects. A cremation ceremony was scheduled to take place today at Wat Ang Trakiet in Chaom Chau commune, Dangkao district.
(Additional reporting by Wency Leung)