Cambodian opposition activist slashed to death during festival

People pray at a shrine in front of the Royal Palace during the water festival in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on November 19, 2021.

An activist and member of Cambodia’s banned opposition party was slashed to death over the weekend as annual Water Festival celebrations in the capital Phnom Penh drew to a close, sources in the country told RFA.

Sin Khonn, 31, was a member of the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) known for his social media posts critical of the government and his activism in delivering food to residents of the city during lengthy COVID-19 lockdowns.

At around 1 a.m. Sunday, three men allegedly hacked and slashed him with knives and machetes at a Buddhist temple in the city’s Chroy Changva district.

Sin Khonn was rushed to the hospital but died of his injuries on the way there. He had major wounds to the head, back, shoulder, and right leg and many more minor stab wounds over his body.

The local Koh Santepheap newspaper reported that the military police in the district arrested Sieng Chhoroth, a 29-year-old male who is also known as Thom, for involvement in the slaying.

According to the report, authorities said the suspect, a construction worker living in the same district, confessed to the killing on Monday afternoon. He said he used a machete to kill Sin Khonn, who he claimed was drunk during the festival and had been causing noise disturbances in front of his brother’s motorcycle shop.

As of Monday, RFA’s Khmer Service was unable to confirm the arrest with Cambodian authorities, but Phnom Penh police spokesperson San Sok Seiha told RFA Monday that police were still looking for the killer.

“Sometimes chaos makes the perpetrators run away, so it is important to let the authorities do some work,” he said.

“In this case, the authorities responded as fast as they could, but the perpetrators escaped. So now we need experts to search for them,” he said.

Sin Khonn’s family is scheduled to meet with police Tuesday morning to follow up on the case, his niece Vann Srey Pich told RFA. The family said he did not drink alcohol and never argued with people, raising questions about the authenticity of the confession as reported by the newspaper.

“He loved his family. People in our village loved and respected him. He never had any problem with anybody,” Vann Srey Pich said.

“He respected his parents. He was a good man in our family,” she said.

Human rights activists and relatives said they thought the killing was politically motivated, as Sin Khonn had been active in supporting the CNRP. He was a frequent participant in protests and often monitored the trials of CNRP activists in front of the local court.

A spokesperson for the local Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association told RFA that he was doubtful that the reportedly arrested suspect had anything to do with Sin Khonn’s killing.

He said that the government has identified suspects before only to distract investigators from the real perpetrators. The spokesperson cited the cases of Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, who were convicted by the authorities of shooting and killing union leader Chea Vichea in 2004 but were later found by the supreme court to be innocent. 

“Let’s us see if this is another Born Samnang, who confessed, but after the trial and sentencing then he told truth,” the spokesperson said. 

“The truth was he did not commit the crime. We will have to follow up and try our best to find the real killer. But, if there is no truth in this case of this suspect, it would be typical of the authorities.”

Sin Khonn had survived a similar attack in May while he was doing his food delivery activism. In that attack he was beaten by four assailants armed with metal bars. His injuries required a dozen stitches.

Translated by Sok Ry Sum. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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