Cambodia: A Violent Summer for a Soprano State

Image result for kem ley

Funeral Procession of Kem Ley in Phnom Penh — The Cambodia Daily

A July 26th event at the Heritage Foundation, titled “Cambodian Democracy and International Accountability,” with renowned journalist and long-time Cambodia expert Elizabeth Becker, drew my thoughts away from my usual East Asian focus. (–international-accountability).  I thought again of that tragic yet mystifying Southeast Asian country upon which I once worked as a Cambodia analyst for the Intelligence and Research Bureau (INR) of the Department of State in the mid-nineteen eighties.

Once the poster child for the international community’s post-Cold War global transition to democracy, Cambodia has slipped further this summer away from the promises made in UN Security Council resolution 745 of February 28, 1992. (  There, the United Nations expressed a desire “to contribute to the restoration and maintenance of peace in Cambodia, to the promotion of national reconciliation, to the protection of human rights, and to the assurance of the right of self-determination of the Cambodian people through free and fair elections.”  Now, however, Cambodia has evolved into a Soprano-like state where political strongman Hun Sen and twenty-six known relatives maintain a kleptocracy that skims off an estimated over $200 million through front companies while resorting to violence to maintain their grip on power.

The latest troubles in Cambodia are linked to the investigative NGO Global Witness, which states as its vision “to expose the shadow systems that enable corruption and conflict, and lift the resource curse that condemns millions of people to lives of poverty and violence.”  On July 7th it released a report titled “HOSTILE TAKEOVER: How Cambodia’s ruling family are pulling the strings on the economy and amassing vast personal fortunes with extreme consequences for the population.” (

The NGO’s press release stated, in part:  “The report, HOSTILE TAKEOVER, sheds light on a huge network of secret deal-making and corruption that has underpinned Hun Sen’s 30-year dictatorial reign of murder, torture and the imprisonment of his political opponents.”  International brands listed with reported links to the Hun Sen-connected enterprises include Apple, Nokia, Visa, Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Nestlé, Durex and Honda.  The press release asserted that “foreign investors, on the other hand, can and should opt out of bankrolling a regime that kills, intimidates or locks up its critics.”

It took less than seventy-two hours for a clear example of the intimidation and violence the report warned about to emerge.  On Sunday morning, July 10th political activist Kem Ley was shot dead in a café inside a Phnom Penh gas station.  Kem Ley had used his Facebook page to post pointed political commentary.   He then criticized the Hun Sen regime and its financial dealings to both local and international press following the publication of the Global Witness report.

The fact that Global Witness touched a nerve in the regime was clearly demonstrated when Hun Sen’s children moved quickly to denounce the report as politically motivated.  The Cambodia Daily reported on July 8th that “Hun Mana, the prime minister’s eldest daughter, and the family’s reigning businesswoman according n to the public filings, accused Global Witness of seeking to hobble her father in upcoming elections and of conspiring with The Cambodia Daily and The Phnom Penh Post. ‘We should thank you for your destructive efforts, which as a consequence will help my father in the coming election as they are all lies and deceitful to confuse the public about what my father has accomplished,’ she wrote in a post on her Facebook page.”  The prime minister’s eldest son, Hun Manet, deputy chair of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces Joint Staff, wrote on his Facebook page that “Whenever it is close to an election, an organization called Global Witness comes up with very colorful accusations aimed at attacking the government and, in particular, making personal attacks on my father. It is that time again.”  (

The Voice of America carried a July 23rd report on the chief suspect in the murder of Kem Ley.  ( A reportedly penniless ex-soldier and ex-Buddhist monk (removed by his abbot for drinking and womanizing) Oeuth Ang recently sold his motorbike before traveling to Phnom Penh where he committed the murder.  His claimed motive for the senseless assassination, according to VOA, “was a debt of $3,000 that Kem Ley had failed to repay.” (This seems implausible as Oeuth Ang reportedly had no money to lend.)  VOA goes on to report that “after the killing, he made little real attempt to escape, walking almost causally away from the scene.  Still carrying his weapon—an expensive Glock pistol—the indebted, poor ex-soldier intermittently brandished the gun at a small group that followed him as he walked for more than 30 minutes along several of the city’s busiest streets.  Oeuth Ang did not seem to fear arrest.”

Kem Ley’s funeral procession on July 24th from the capital of Phnom Penh to his home village in Takeo province was a national event.  Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported that “millions of mourners lined Cambodia’s highways to pay respects to popular government critic Kem Ley…Kem Ley, 46, who will be buried on Monday, was also honored in large gatherings across the nation on Sunday, two weeks after he was shot dead at a gas station convenience store where he was having coffee.”

The same RFA July 24th report went on to explain the current disarray of Cambodia’s major opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP): “About a dozen opposition party members, including lawmakers Hong Sok Hour and Um Sam An, are jailed in the country’s Prey Sar prison on various charges.  CNRP leader Sam Rainsy is in exile, and acting leader Kem Sokha has been holed up in party headquarters since heavily-armed police attempted to arrest him in May for ignoring court orders to appear as a witness in a pair of defamation cases related to his alleged affair with a hairdresser.”  (

Kem Ley’s widowed wife, Bou Rachana, who is expecting a fifth child, stated that she “no longer feels safe in Cambodia since her husband’s death.”  She and her four young sons will reportedly seek asylum in Australia. (

Cambodia, still in political crisis, will hold commune (local) elections next year and general elections for the National Assembly in July 2018.  Prime Minister Hun Sen is expected to seek a fifth term in office as the head of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

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