On Sunday, Cambodia and the world were shocked by the calculated murder of famed dissident and opposition politician Kem Ley. Ley, founder of the Grassroots Democracy Organization, was gunned down at a gas station as he drank his morning coffee. Though the assassin has claimed he killed Ley over an unpaid debt, both human rights activists and Cambodian National Police spokespersons have openly questioned this alleged motive. The murderer gave his name as Choup Samlap, which translates from Khmer to English as “Meet to Kill.” In an ominous irony, the site of the murder was Phnom Penh’s Mao Tse-Tung Boulevard.
Thousands of Cambodians took to the streets to express their fear, outrage, and anger at this seeming return to the bad old days of the 1980s and 1990s when political assassination of the opponents of the current prime minster, Hun Sen, was de rigueur in Cambodian politics. However, recent Cambodian history, of course, has seen even harsher repression than that brought to bear by Sen. In 1975, the communist Khmer Rouge guerrillas seized control of Cambodia and transformed the country into “Democratic Kampuchea,” which they billed as a communist paradise for agrarian workers. Democratic Kampuchea’s true nature was a heinous contrast to any notion of paradise; for the millions of Cambodians trapped under Khmer Rouge rule, life was not paradise but hell.
Under the direction of the mad dictator Pol Pot, the Cambodian Genocide slaughtered Cambodian “class enemies” for the slightest imaginable reasons—if you wore glasses, for example, you were most likely an unproductive, bourgeois intellectual and were marked for liquidation. The exact death toll is still a debated subject, but most credible scholars put the final count in excess of two million. Bruce Sharp ends his monograph on the Genocide’s ultimate human cost thusly: “There was once a time when they were not merely numbers. They had names, and that is why it matters.”
The Cambodian Genocide came to an end in 1979, when the Socialist Republic of Vietnam invaded Cambodia. It is important to note that this was not a humanitarian intervention, but part of a larger geopolitical catfight within the communist bloc between the USSR, Vietnam’s patron, and the People’s Republic of China, the sponsor of the Khmer Rouge’s bloody execution machine. (The two powers did not disagree on fundamental issues like human rights, free speech, or free expression, which both countries agreed were unacceptable in true socialism, but only questions of prestige and preeminence in the communist world.)
Vietnam installed a former Khmer Rouge cadre to rule Cambodia in their stead, and former Khmer Rouge leaders have held power in Cambodia ever since. Hun Sen, the current prime minister, was a Khmer Rouge member until the party purged him in 1977—the breakaway movement he formed in opposition to the Khmer Rouge, however, was equally communist in ideology. Though in pretense they have decommunized, in practice Cambodia is locked as firmly in the ironclad fingers of a tyrant’s grip today as it was in 1979.
It is imperative that the world recognize the brutal, bloody handprint of government by unreconstructed communists on Cambodia’s increasingly turbulent and oppressed political society. Kem Ley’s death should serve as yet another toll of the warning bell—and one that the international community must hear before more lives are lost to one man’s pursuit of the complete political power his Khmer Rouge forebears once exercised.