cheyo commune, Kompong Cham province – As evening fell Friday, three men guzzled herbal wine as they waited in a cashew grove in O Pek village.
They were dressed as soldiers and armed with two AK-47 assault rifles and an old-style Russian carbine rifle.
Thirty minutes later, commune council candidate Chhim Leang Sri, 45, was dying on the ground about 50 meters away. The three men had disappeared into the darkness, police and witnesses said Monday.
Was it a political killing? Or was it a robbery? Opinion is sharply divided on what happened in this isolated village in northern Kompong Cham province.
“Chhim Leang Sri is the latest in a long line of pro-democracy activists [to be] assassinated,” said opposition party leader Sam Rainsy, who believes forces opposed to his party staged a robbery as a pretext for killing his candidate.
Police disagree. “I don’t think it was political, but a robbery,” said Pen Phat, police chief in neighboring Speu commune. There have been similar crimes in the area recently, he said.
Chhim Leang Sri’s family says they’re not sure what to think, but that he hadn’t been threatened by anybody and they didn’t even know he was running for commune council.
It could have been just a robbery, said his nephew, 20-year-old Chhim Chhuon. “We are considered a rich family in the village.”
Human rights activists say whatever the truth, even the possibility of a fourth political killing in as many months will frighten voters and candidates as the February elections approach.
Police, the UN human rights office and at least two human rights groups are sifting through the evidence, trying to find the truth. One experienced human rights worker says it may take several weeks.
“You talk to the families, you talk to the neighbors, you talk to people who know what’s going on in the community,” the worker said. “It can take time for people to calm down enough to get to the heart of things.”
Chhim Chhun, Chhim Leang Sri’s younger brother, was watching TV with his family when the armed men burst in.
The crime didn’t take long. One man stood lookout while the other two set to work. Faces wrapped in kramas, they pointed their weapons at the family and demanded money.
They were beating Chhim Chhun with rifle butts when two of his children escaped and ran next door for help, to the home of their uncle, Chhim Leang Sri.
As he ran out the door, Chhim Leang Sri grabbed a long knife used for clearing brush in the jungle. He didn’t get far before the lookout shot him in the hip.
Right behind him was his 14-year-old son, Srorn Chandy.
“I heard the shot and saw my father fall to the ground,” said Srorn Chandy. “I couldn’t see the man, but I saw him shine a light on my father’s face, and shoot him [again] from one meter away.”
He said that after the second, fatal shot, the gunman taunted the dying man: “Why aren’t you strong like before?”
Then all three men fled back through the cashew grove, running so fast that they left behind a pair of flip-flops, a krama, two one-liter wine bottles and some lime rinds.
They escaped with $100 and some jewelry, police said. There is nothing behind the grove but plantations and paddies, with the nearest village more than 1 km away.
No one has been arrested.
O Pek village is in a remote area of rubber and cashew plantations, with bad roads and few phones.
The Chhim brothers grew rice and cashews and earned extra money with their two trucks, one of which was powered by a generator. They were well-off by village standards.
According to the Sam Rainsy Party, Chhim Leang Sri had been a supporter of the CPP before joining the opposition last year.
Neighbor Kun Thim, 50, said Chhim Leang Sri “was a very gentle man, who never drank or gambled.” He didn’t with his neighbors. He Chhim Leang Sri’s was a political killing, because the suspected robbery was at Chhim Chhun’s house, not Chhim Leang Sri’s.
Besides, he said, the village is not a place where people are threatened for their political beliefs.
“We never have that kind of trouble around here,” he said. “Some people here support the Sam Rainsy Party, some support Funcinpec, and some support the CPP.” The district elected a Funcinpec member of parliament in 1998, he said.
After the shooting, children from both Chhim families ran for help. One ran to Speu commune police headquarters, on the north side of the road which divides Cheyo and Speu communes.
Although the crime occurred on the south side of the road, in Cheyo commune, Speu commune police chief Pen Phat went to the scene, even though it was outside his jurisdiction. It looked like a robbery to him.
“If he hadn’t been carrying that long knife, it might not have happened,” he said. He thinks the lookout panicked.
Am Leang Heng, police chief for Chamkar Leu district, said the case seems similar to an armed robbery on July 23 at Trapeang Roung village, 2 km away from O Pek.
In that case, there were four robbers, and no one was hurt. But witnesses reported seeing three high-powered rifles like the ones used in the Cheyo killing.
He said he’s under pressure to solve the latest case, given the possible political ramifications. “To call it a political crime is the right of the politicians,” he said, but he believes he is dealing with a gang of robbers.
“We have no suspects yet, because our investigation is not finished,” he said. “It will not go quickly. We cannot press the family while they are grieving, and other witnesses may be afraid of retaliation.”
Chhim Leang Sri’s house is finally quiet, one day after the funeral. He is buried behind his brother’s house, on a slight rise overlooking a pond choked with water lilies.
His 41-year-old widow, Huon Mom, sits silently nursing her 10-month-old baby, the daughter she finally had after seven sons.
She said her late husband “wasn’t frightened. He was never threatened. He had no disputes with people, He had many friends, and when he died, hundreds of people came here.
“It is hard to say if this will discourage people from taking part in the election.”