baset district, Kompong Speu province – A few weeks ago, Sam Rainsy Party activist Uch Horn told fellow opposition party member Orm Bunly that if he died, his colleague must carry on with party work.
But Orm Bunly is unsure whether he has the courage to heed his good friend’s words now that 52-year-old Uch Horn, who recently reported threats against his life to human rights groups, was found shot to death Saturday night near his home in the remote Sre Traok village.
“He told me that working for the party is the same as working for the nation and for justice,” said Orm Bunly, who joined the Sam Rainsy Party a few months ago with Uch Horn. “I’m scared because now I am alone.”
Fear is now the feeling that pervades Sre Traok village since Uch Horn’s violent death. Authorities say he was murdered because of personal reasons, but opposition party members call the killing a political one.
Now Uch Horn’s wife and 27-year-old son are afraid they will be the next targets, while other residents worry the murder signals the start of a spate of violence in this usually peaceful village.
“Now I’m very concerned about my safety because my father registered me as a Sam Rainsy Party member,” said Ung Houl, Uch Horn’s only son. “I don’t know if I will do anything for the party before the next elections. Now I want to be neutral to take care of my security.”
Uch Horn’s murder comes months before the country’s first commune elections, scheduled for February 2002. Uch Horn was an opposition party commune candidate and his death increases concerns about the potential for violence and intimidation in the local elections.
Provincial authorities, however, contend Uch Horn died because people believed he was a sorcerer. Teh Chory, Kompong Speu’s police chief, said he doesn’t believe the people who killed Uch Horn were politically motivated.
“Now is the modern time so no one is crazy enough to shoot someone for political reasons,” Teh Chory said.
But several residents interviewed Monday said they did not believe Uch Horn could perform magic. When the sorcerer rumors began, Uch Horn went as far as renting a speaker and megaphone to broadcast to the village that he was not a sorcerer.
Instead, villagers described him as a likable man who was especially popular among children because he performed plays for them during the Khmer New Year. He was also very active in the Sam Rainsy Party since he joined in April, traveling throughout his commune to recruit members and registering more than 100 people to join the opposition party.
“Many people liked [Uch Horn],” said neighbor Heak Touch, who declined to speculate on whether the murder was political or personal. “I liked him, too. I never saw him do anything magical. He was always joking a lot. Everyone was surprised to hear he was killed. Nothing like that ever happened here.”
Kao Phorn said she still feels shaky, two days after she heard a round of shots being fired near her home. She said she doesn’t know why Uch Horn was killed, but added that it has changed the attitude of villagers.
“Everyone is scared now and it will affect the commune elections,” Kao Phorn said. “This will stop people from supporting political parties.”
Sam Saroeun, Uch Horn’s wife of more than 30 years, said her husband’s trouble’s began after he joined the party in late April and put a Sam Rainsy Party sign in front of their home. The next month, he attended a Sam Rainsy Party training course and when he returned, he heard the rumors that he was a sorcerer.
“I told him not to be involved in politics because I was scared for his life,” Sam Saroeun said. “But he told me he wanted to serve the nation and he acted like he wasn’t worried. I told him not to leave the house, but he said if people wanted to kill him, they would do it anywhere.”
On June 12, a hut on Uch Horn’s farm was burnt down and 10 days later, he was attacked by a man with a stick, but Uch Horn managed to escape on his motorbike. He was concerned enough that on June 18, he traveled to Phnom Penh and reported the threats to the UN human rights office and two local rights groups Adhoc and Licadho, which are investigating the murder
Kek Galabru, founder of Licadho, said the killing is a bad omen. “I’m afraid the commune elections could be even more violent than the national elections,” she said. “The commune chiefs will lose everything they have if they lose the election.”
On Saturday around 7:30 pm, Uch Horn, his wife’s cousin and a neighbor were 200 meters from Uch Horn’s home pumping water into his 1 hectare rice field when he was shot at with an AK-47 and hit eight times, family members and authorities said.
“When I heard the shots, I thought they were firecrackers,” said Sam Saroeun, who was home during the murder. “Then my cousin came running to my house and told me that my husband was shot.”
Uch Horn’s body was cremated Sunday. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy visited the victim’s family Monday, to “give them hope.” He also said the party has been in contact with other Sam Rainsy Party activists in the provinces to keep up their morale.
Meanwhile, Sam Saroeun wondered how her family will survive without a husband and father.
“I don’t believe the gunmen will be arrested,” she said. “If my husband had joined the CPP, he would not be dead now.”
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