The man suspected of murdering prominent political analyst Kem Ley on Sunday was a monk at a pagoda in Siem Reap province until last year, officials said on Monday, while Prime Minister Hun Sen sought to deflect public suspicion that the assassination was politically motivated.
Kem Ley, 46, a popular commentator and frequent government critic, was shot dead while having coffee at a favorite convenience store in central Phnom Penh shortly after 8:30 a.m.
Police arrested the suspected gunman about 30 minutes later near Aeon Mall and said the man identified himself as Chuob Samlab, which translates as “Meet Kill.” They said he had most recently worked as a farmer in Thailand.
Phnom Penh police declined to comment on the case on Monday and referred questions to municipal police chief Chuon Sovann, who could not be reached. Phnom Penh Municipal Court spokesman Ly Sophanna said the man had been brought in for questioning but declined to elaborate.
Authorities in Siem Reap province, however, said they recognized the arrested man as a former resident of the area.
“We saw his photograph posted on Facebook,” said Thoeun Try, chief of police in Angkor Chum district’s Nokor Pheas commune. “On his birth certificate, his name is Oeuth Ang and he is 43.”
District police chief Mann Sokhat said Mr. Ang was a monk in the area for about three years before he left the order in 2015 to work for an environmental organization whose name he could not recall.
“We learned from his wife that he said he was going to Phnom Penh on July 1, but he did not say what for,” he added.
Photos of Mr. Ang dressed in what looks like a ranger’s uniform circulated online on Monday, leading to speculation that he was an Environment Ministry official. But the head of Siem Reap’s environment department said no one by that name had worked for the department.
“Based on his uniform, maybe he worked for an environmental organization; we are looking into it,” he said.
On Sunday afternoon, the Fresh News website posted a brief video of the arrested suspect confessing to the murder, claiming that he shot Kem Ley over a $3,000 debt the analyst had failed to pay back.
However, Kem Ley’s wife, Bou Rachana, insisted that her husband had owed no one and did not even know the suspect.
“What they published is entirely wrong; he never borrowed money, not even 100 riel,” she said. “He never met or knew him.”
Colleagues, friends and fans of Kem Ley have cast doubt on the man’s video confession, suspecting a return to the political assassinations of Cambodia’s not-so-distant past, which often targeted politicians, journalists and unionists critical of Mr. Hun Sen’s heavy-handed rule.
In a message posted to Facebook on Sunday, opposition leader Sam Rainsy pulled no punches, calling Kem Ley’s murder “another act of state terrorism.”
“Because he apparently represented a political danger for the other side, the latter hired a hitman to assassinate him,” said Mr. Rainsy, who is in self-imposed exile to avoid a prison sentence over a defamation conviction widely seen as politically motivated.
Mr. Hun Sen on Monday urged the public to reject such accusations, arguing that the government had no reason to order an assassination that would spark an unwelcome backlash. He said that whoever was behind the murder was hoping to undermine the government’s efforts at building a peaceful and stable society.
“Who would benefit and who would lose from this tragedy?” he said at an event at the National Military Police headquarters in Phnom Penh. “Indeed, the Royal Government is seriously losing face while one side says it is not capable of providing security for its citizens and others say that the incident is politically motivated.”
“Hopefully other politicians will not use this case politically and inflame the issue,” he said.
Information Minister Khieu Kanharith echoed Mr. Hun Sen’s remarks during a press conference with CPP-friendly news outlets, adding that there was nothing about Kem Ley to warrant special government attention.
“For Cambodia, criticism is a normal thing and Dr. Kem Ley was not the first person to criticize the government’s practices and Cambodian society,” he said. “We have a lot of critics.”
But the government has proved particularly truculent of late; the ruling party is suing political analyst Ou Virak for sharing widely held suspicions that the CPP is driving a sex scandal probe currently embroiling CNRP Vice President Kem Sokha.
Civil society groups on Monday issued statements calling for a thorough investigation of Kem Ley’s murder with an eye toward helping secure free and fair elections in 2017 and 2018.
“Cambodians must be free to participate in democracy without fear,” Naly Pilorge, director of rights group Licadho, said in a statement.
“[Kem Ley’s] assassination is a big loss for democracy in Cambodia and we demand swift action, beginning with a full independent investigation using international experts to achieve justice.”