A Funcinpec Party activist planning to run in next year’s communal elections in Kampot province was shot to death last week in what human rights workers call an attempt to disrupt challenges to commune authorities.
But others say there is not enough evidence to prove this was a political murder, saying the incident is being used by opposition party members to promote their own agendas.
Prak Chhien and his wife, Doung Meas, were both gunned down June 3 while tending their rice field about 8 km from their home in Trapeang Kleang commune, authorities said Thursday.
A Funcinpec member since 1993, Prak Chhien was recently picked by provincial party authorities to run for commune chief, provincial governor Ly Sou (Fun) said Thursday.
Ly Sou claimed the victim had been stalked for several days by his assailants, who waited until he was away from his village to act. “The murderers had a plan to kill him for a long time,” he said.
Both Ly Sou and an investigator from the human rights group Adhoc called Prak Chhien a “popular” man who this year conducted at least three party meetings at his home, consulting with other local Funcinpec members and strategizing on party activities.
“We are not 100 percent sure, but this looks like a political killing,” the Adhoc investigator said Thursday. He said details, including the lack of evidence of robbery and the fact the murders were not promptly reported, make him suspect the incident is more than a personal dispute.
But while investigations are being conducted by organizations such as election monitoring groups and a joint CPP-Funcinpec committee formed in the National Assembly, no clear motive for the murders has been discovered.
Funcinpec President and National Assembly President Prince Norodom Ranariddh appealed Thursday to CPP and Funcinpec members to quickly investigate, saying, “We have to solve this together to avoid a small problem becoming a big one.”
Though he acknowledged Prak Chhien’s candidacy might have made other villagers jealous, the prince said he thought the murders were probably the result of a local land dispute—a theory supported by police.
According to province police chief Hok Kim Srun, the victims’ children claim their parents were killed in an argument over their rice field. The children said Prak Chhien was never a Funcinpec member, Hok Kim Srun said.
“This is not political,” he said.
With election laws not yet passed by the National Assembly and elections at least 18 months away, some are questioning how Prak Chhien could have been considered a political candidate.
“This is being used by some people for their own means. To say [Prak Chhien] was killed because he is a candidate for the commune election is a political accusation,” Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said.
But election and rights officials say political intimidation aimed at discouraging communal election candidates has existed for months, particularly in rural areas where commune chiefs have had control since the early 1980s.
If the incident is connected to the elections, it marks the first election-related murder in two years.
“At the higher levels of government, there are people who want fair elections, but at the grass-roots level, this message has been diluted,” said Chea Vannath, president of the Center for Social Development.
(Additional reporting by Lor Chandara)