When Kem Ley’s alleged murderer provided his name as “Chuop Samlap”—or “Meet Kill”—after fatally shooting the popular political analyst on July 10, it was met with shock and bafflement.
“This name, we can’t believe it,” said Phnom Penh municipal police chief Chuon Sovann at a news conference later the same day. “For a long time, people have never given the name ‘samlap’ to children.”
“Who is the sick person [who] came up with this? Who jokes like this? Who?” asked Kem Monovithya, the opposition CNRP’s deputy public affairs chief, on Twitter.
A simple investigation by But Buntenh, a dissident monk, had by the next day already revealed the suspected killer’s real name to be Oeuth Ang. But authorities seemed unmoved and on Wednesday charged him with murder using his chilling moniker.
Yet if the official use of “Chuop Samlap” seemed inexplicable, there was one place it would not have appeared out of place—among the 19 searing critiques of government leaders that Kem Ley published as fables in the two weeks before his death.
Using biting names such as “Uncle Five Villas” for one high-ranking official or “Does Not Care” for a less-than-conscientious political leader, the fables attracted attention for both their humor and their messages.
Posted on Facebook between June 27 and the afternoon before he was killed, some stories also appeared to offer very thinly veiled and derisive criticisms of top government figures, such as one who appears as “The King of Bees,” “a.k.a. Uncle Strong.”
“I have a stinger, I have poison, and there’s nothing that can stop me. I have to destroy everything if any creature ever opposes me. I have to use my strength and my poison,” the king bee says in one fable.
“Even if I have to spend everything I have, that’d be OK, provided that I win, provided I am happy, and provided my brothers and sisters and children get happiness. Even if people must die—let them die.”
In another story, “Uncle Five Villas” struggles to come to terms with the severe crisis facing many people in a village he is visiting for a ceremony, with many complaining about losing their farms to banks and their children to overseas jobs.
“Hey, it’s nothing, just wait for our party to help you,” he tells the heavily indebted farmers. “Now we’re building schools, roads, hospitals, bridges, and so on. We win elections to help you have easy lives! We have this much, what more could we want?”
With strange but fitting names such as “Agitate,” “Transparency” and “Beyond Regret” peppering other stories, many of Kem Ley’s 125,000 Facebook fans took to the site in the hours after his death to comment on the “Chuop Samlap” nickname.
“If you put the name ‘Chuop Samlap’ into a fable, merely looking at it would make you laugh a bit. For it to be the name of a killer, even children would find that too disgusting to believe,” wrote one user, Pan Pisith.
“It’s too interesting, this name Chuop Samlap! Whoever organized this program, were they thinking about the fables? And did they think that killing a person was just an insignificant fable? Oh God, why is your heart evil like this?” said another, Pheakdey Samin.
The theory has not been confined to the social network. Prince Sisowath Thomico, one of the few members of the royal family openly aligned with the CNRP, said by telephone on Sunday that he believed the alleged killer’s name sent a clear message.
“All the names in his fables were references to the people in the government, and I think using ‘Chuop Samlap’ as a nickname for the gunman was a clear reference to the fables. It’s been done by people who were angry to be named that way,” Prince Thomico said.
The moniker shows the murder “was from someone who is used to reading and hearing the fables of Kem Ley,” he said.
Others have suggested that the popular fables played a role in Kem Ley’s murder.
On the day of the analyst’s death, But Buntenh, his dissident monk friend, posted a video to Facebook saying that Kem Ley told him on July 7 that he had received a credible tip that someone wanted him dead—and might later kill the monk, too.
The reason was threefold, he said. First, a multi-part political tale he had released on Facebook titled “The Man With a White Shirt and a Black Heart,” about a top Cambodian political leader, had drawn great anger.
“Secondly, he had created the political fables from Part 1 to 14. And third, they were very angry and were attacking Kem Ley over the report from Global Witness,” But Buntenh says in the video, referring to an NGO report about Hun Sen’s family fortune that Kem Ley had recently discussed on the radio.
Sam Inn, a friend of Kem Ley and secretary-general of the Grassroots Democracy Party the analyst helped found last year, said he had little doubt the fables had angered top officials. But he was skeptical that the names would have stuck out and caused anger.
“To me, this name ‘Chuop Samlap’ seems more just about threatening and intimidation than to draw any links to the fables of Kem Ley,” he said.
Either way, Prince Thomico said, it was clear that Kem Ley’s fables had proved devastatingly effective at spreading his ideas.
“If Kem Ley was only a commentator and published things from time to time in newspapers, he would not have been killed. But he was becoming more and more dangerous for certain people,” he said.
“He was jeopardizing their interests through his fables and through his comments. Through this, he was explaining the injustices of Cambodian society—and injustice is the main fuel for revolutions.”