Stories in pro-government media this week accused dissident monk But Buntenh of fleeing the country after stealing funds from the family of slain political analyst Kem Ley, but one of his associates said on Friday that he had merely gone to Thailand for a medical checkup and vacation, while Kem Ley’s wife denied the claims.
A firebrand who is frequently at the forefront of political protests and leads the Independent Monk Network for Social Justice, But Buntenh has attracted the government’s ire in the past due to his scathing critiques of the ruling CPP.
He was also a friend of Kem Ley and spoke out in the days after the analyst’s murder about his belief that the government was behind the death, which was committed by a man who gave his name only as Chuop Samlap, or “Meet Kill,” and told police a story about Kem Ley being in his debt.
In addition to serving on the committee that helped organize Kem Ley’s funeral, But Buntenh went to Siem Reap province the day after the murder to investigate the killer’s origins and was the first to reveal him as an ex-soldier and ex-monk named Oeuth Ang.
This week, at least two stories have appeared in government-aligned media outlets accusing the monk of stealing money earmarked for Kem Ley’s funeral and fleeing the country—claims that he and the analyst’s family have denied.
A report published on Wednesday by the Kampuchea Thmey newspaper—which is owned by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s eldest daughter Hun Mana—said Mr. Buntenh was “now at large” after “taking money from the funeral, more than $30,000.” The article said the source of the information was a letter from an unidentified reader.
A similar story, headlined “Monk But Buntenh has disappeared after the burial ceremony of Kem Ley,” was published on the website of the ruling CPP the same day.
“Monk But Buntenh is reported to have disappeared immediately after Kem Ley’s body was buried in Takeo province,” the article read. “The disappearance occurred at the time that there was a report alleging he had embezzled some amount of money from Kem Ley’s funeral.”
However, Tim Malay, the head of the Cambodian Youth Network and another member of the funeral committee, said there had been no embezzlement and that the monk had merely flown to Thailand on Wednesday for a brief vacation and health checkup.
“He will stay there for a few days,” Mr. Malay said.
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan defended the government’s decision to post the article on its website, arguing that it was balanced because it gave But Buntenh a chance to refute the claim of embezzlement.
“Monk But Buntenh defended himself that he didn’t steal $30,000 of the funeral money,” Mr. Eysan said.
He added that the story had not been authored by the CPP, but had been picked up from a local media outlet, which he did not name.
“It’s just information we share,” he said. “For example, we have shared some articles from Fresh News. So the party’s website just shares articles, not only the article on monk But Buntenh,” he said.
In addition to the allegations against But Buntenh, the article published by the CPP also claimed that Kem Ley was not legally married to his wife, and that he had two other wives and a total of eight children.
“Kem Ley left the first wife named Mom and he secretly had a love affair with a physician who worked at Takeo province, and they had a kid,” it said. “And Bou Rachana is the third wife of Kem Ley, and they have not yet registered for a marriage certificate.”
Ms. Rachana, the pregnant widow of Kem Ley, has appeared prominently in the media since his death and has said publicly that she fears for her family’s safety and hopes to migrate to Australia.
She said on Friday that the stories about her family and about But Buntenh were false, noting that the monk did not have access to donations made to Kem Ley’s family after his death.
“We deny the news published that he stole the money from the funeral and went to Thailand,” Ms. Rachana said, also denying the report about her husband.
“I lived with him for many years until I had five children,” she added. “If he has another woman, why don’t I know?”
But Buntenh declined to comment on the allegations.