Family and friends of murdered student Sin Khon have said that they believe the young opposition activist was targeted in a political assassination, rejecting public statements by police that Khon was killed after getting into an argument with a motorcycle repairmen and his brother while drunk.
Military police arrested 29-year-old Sie Chhorrath, a construction worker living in Village 1, Chroy Changvar district’s Chroy Changvar commune, Phnom Penh, on November 22. Chorrath has allegedly admitted to have killed Khon.
Sin Khon, a young activist of the outlawed Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) who was regularly involved in social issues, was brutally slashed to death on the night of November 21 near Wat Chas pagoda in Phnom Penh’s Chroy Changvar commune of Phnom Penh at about 1AM.
Phnom Penh police spokesman San Sok Seiha told CamboJA that according to Chhorrath, the victim, who was living in Wat Chas pagoda, had been returning to the pagoda drunk when he approached the suspect’s brother, a motorcycle repairman. Chorrath reportedly said that Khon had grown angry and insulted his brother, causing Chhorrath to attack the victim with a machete.
But the victim’s brother, Sin Kheng, said that his younger brother was a gentle person who loved to study, and not the kind of person who got drunk and disturbed other people. He said he did not believe the alleged perpetrator’s claim that his brother had been drunk and aggressive.
“I do not know what to think,” he said. “Even if [the investigation] is unfair, because my family is very poor, we even have to borrow money from our neighbors for funerals. I also want to seek justice, but because my mother and father are too poor, it is very difficult”.
Out of the six siblings, Kheng said, only Sin Khon had worked hard to get higher education. He said his brother had never taken money from his family, but had to earn enough on his own to support his masters degree.
Another close friend of the victim who had known Khon for eight years said that Khon had been active as an activist on social media over these past few months. He asked for his name not to be published out of fear for his safety.
“If it’s just a normal conflict or small dispute, how can the suspect kill him?” he asked. “Just only hit him, or file a complaint — but this is a premeditated murder with a political agenda behind it.”
He told CamboJA that Khon was a good man who only drank on special occasions and rarely had conflicts with others. He questioned how a small conflict could have led to the murder, and why a motorcycle repairman and his brother would risk their livelihoods over such a small incident.
“It’s just a small conflict with the younger brother, and the elder brother suddenly appeared to cut him across two ribs and kill the victim with a sharp sword,” he said. “The suspect attempted to cut off his head, but the victim escaped and it hit his foot. It’s a premediated murder, not a crime of anger.”
Another monk who lives in Wat Chas and asked that his name be withheld said there had been a heavy police presence in the pagoda the morning after Khon’s death.
“After Khun was killed last night, there were eight police asking to check the victim’s room to investigate the suspects,” he said. “So the police took seven phones and one laptop from his room. The victim was killed in front of the pagoda, so why are they asking to check his room? There was already a phone on the victim.”
“I could not refuse them because the police showed a document to ask for checking his room to investigate the suspect,” he said.
Soeng Senkaruna, senior monitor and spokesman of human rights group ADHOC, said that although Cambodia has peace, the murder, charging and arrest of activists still frightened many people off taking part in politics as they should in a democracy.
“If there is a political agenda behind it, it’ll affect other activists who are willing to join a political movement. They will be afraid to join and raise their voice, especially in the upcoming commune elections in 2022 and the national election 2023,” he said.
Union leader Rong Chhun, who was recently released from prison after spending more than 15 months behind bars on incitement charges, said that Sin Khon’s killing was similar to the case of political analyst Kem Ley and unionist Chea Vichea, both of whom were gunned down in public.
“We strongly condemn the illegal killing of Sin Khon, and we don’t want to see more acts of impunity in Cambodia since Kem Ley, Chea Vichea, and Ven Sam Bunthoeun where police cannot find the murderer,” he said. “If [a suspect] is found, it is just a virtual killer.”
Prum Chantha, the wife of former Phnom Penh CNRP executive committee member Kak Komphea, who has been imprisoned since June last year, said she regretted the killing of Sin Khon because he was not the person the perpetrators alleged.
She also compared the case of Sin Khon to the case of Kem Ley, suggesting that the perpetrators arrested by the authorities in both cases were not the real perpetrators.
“I do not believe the perpetrators, because in the past all opposition activists have been harassed and threatened,” Chantha said.
“I think that only those who know, dare to stand up, dare to express their opinions are all killed more strongly than in the Pol Pot era,” she said.
Phnom Penh police spokesman San Sok Seiha confirmed that police have arrested a suspect and claimed that he had admitted his guilt.
“The victim consumed alcohol and got drunk and insulted [the suspect’s] brother,” he said. “That made the suspect angry, leading to the victim’s murder,” he said.
Sok Seiha called for international media and journalists to get more in-depth information about the case before publishing.
“It’s the opposite of what they publish and accuse, but from what we have investigated this case is about drunkenness and getting into trouble that led to anger and murder.”
Phnom Penh Military Police deputy justice bureau chief Phan Daravuth referred questions to Phnom Penh Military Police commander Rath Srieng, who declined to comment.