chhouk district, Kampot province – “I am so afraid of being shot to death like Pak Chhoeun and his wife,” Chhin Chem said after returning from two days in the jungles surrounding his home in Lboeuk commune.
Only hours after being told his friend and his friend’s wife, Doung Mean, were found dead in a hut near their rice field June 3, Chhin Chem fled—fearing that the same gunmen who murdered the couple would turn their weapons on him.
A mixed commission of Funcinpec and CPP officials continue to debate why Pak Chhoeun and Doung Mean were killed.
No clear motive has emerged to explain the murders, said Senator Khem Sokha (Fun), who has visited the commune and suggested last week the killings may have been politically motivated, despite denials from CPP commission members.
Pak Chhoeun, like Chhin Chem, was one of seven recently named Funcinpec candidates for next year’s anticipated communal elections, and villagers maintain the easy-mannered and generous man was a threat to commune chief Im Nan’s long-standing power.
While local officials and police say Pak Chhoeun died in a land dispute, some observers also see politics as the cause and fear that any chances for legitimate political opposition during elections in Lboeuk commune may have died with him.
Human rights workers and election monitors also say the events in Lboeuk commune are an indicator of the worst of what is likely to happen as commune chiefs around the country face a loss of power in the elections scheduled for late 2001.
“This is a very big problem,” said a Phnom Penh-based election monitor, whose own report on the incident points out a history of intimidation, now elevated by the killings.
“[The murders] are going to impact the quality of the candidates that are willing to run. They are not going to be as independent as they should,” the election monitor said.
While he said he will remain a candidate, Chhin Chem’s political resolve has taken a fatalistic turn since Pak Chhoeun’s death.
“I cannot keep my secret about communal election candidacy, but I am very sad now about [what it could mean] for my life,” he said.
Another local candidate, Kim Sokhom, said she is being pressured now to quit politics altogether by her husband, who told her he feels her life is also in danger.
“I am also afraid of this kind of killing,” Kim Sokhom said.
Chhin Chem explained he made the decision to run for commune leadership in next year’s anticipated elections several months ago, but “after that the commune chief hated me more.”
Pak Chhoeun was also allegedly hated by Im Nan, a CPP strongman who according to Chhin Chem repeatedly tried to intimidate members of other political parties and eventually drove the area’s Funcinpec minority underground.
“[Pak Chhoeun] and I secretly joined Funcinpec in 1993, and I never told people about our [political] actions here,” Chhin Chem says.
“If the gunmen here knew about this at the time, we would already be dead. The commune election candidacy list was drafted only a few months ago and then [Pak Chhoeun] was killed,” he says.
By most accounts Pak Chhoeun’s popularity with villagers made him a threat to Im Nan, who villagers say has no tolerance for political opposition in his commune.
“People do not have a right to support any parties except the ruling government party—no Funcinpec, no Sam Rainsy Party, only the CPP,” explains one villager who didn’t want to be named.
Im Nan could not be found for comment, but Trapeang Korki village chief Svay Den denied claims that political parties other than the CPP were stifled.
Villagers claim three people were fatally shot in Lboeuk commune last year, bringing the total number of allegedly politically-related deaths to five.
“This will happen again,” one human rights worker said bluntly, explaining the isolation of rural communes makes it easier for chiefs to both influence the populace and mete out often brutal punishment to those who do oppose them.