Hun Sen with US Secretary of State John Kerry this year. The Cambodian strong man is increasingly under pressure. Source: Wikimedia
A well-known Cambodian political scientist, known for his criticism of the notoriously corrupt and increasingly authoritarian government, has been shot dead at a cafe in the capital Phnom Penh.
Kem Ley’s killing comes amid increased political tension between Prime Minister Hun Sen and the opposition.
Police said Kem Ley, 46, a commentator and activist, was shot dead while he drank coffee next to a petrol station.
“He was shot dead at a mart just before 9am,” said Kirt Chantharith, national police spokesman.
He led a citizen’s advocacy group called “Khmer for Khmer”.
A 38-year-old suspect has apparently admitted to the killing in a dispute over money, Cambodia’s Interior Ministry announced.
Kem Ley’s pregnant widow, Pou Rachana, said: “I don’t know what happened, somebody just called me and said that he’s shot.”
Hun Sen condemned the attack, called for an investigation and ordering the authorities to seize firearms and explosives.
“I pay my condolences over the death of Kem Ley, who was shot by a gunman,” Hun Sen posted on Facebook. “I condemn this brutal act.”
Videos of the apparent murderer’s confession spread on social media.
Police brought the suspect before the media. He had visible blood on his head and shoulders and was identified as Chuop Somlap, which means “meet to kill”.
“It’s hard to believe that this is his name, it may be fake,” Phnom Penh police commander Chuon Sovann said. “We continue our investigation into people who are behind this.”
Kem Ley’s corpse was left lying in a pool of blood on the floor of the store, with numerous onlookers around it. A water bottle and a mobile phone were visible nearby.
Thousands of supporters formed a procession as the body was taken to a pagoda in his car, covered with flowers, fruit and incense.
The US embassy said Kem Ley was one of the oppressed nation’s most prominent political observers and the British ambassador called his death a serious loss to Cambodia.
The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) is hoping to break Hun Sen’s iron grip on power in next year’s local elections and the general election in 2018.
Kem Ley recently helped publicise a report by anti-corruption pressure group Global Witness.
It accused the prime minister and his family of having acquired US$200 million in business interests. The government denies the allegations.