The continued presence of the body of slain political analyst Kem Ley at the capital’s Wat Chas pagoda, where thousands have converged to pay their respects over the past week, is nothing more than a politicised money grab, City Governor Pa Socheatvong said yesterday.
Socheatvong’s remarks came after the committee tasked with overseeing details of the funeral balked at an agreement to send the body for interment to Ley’s home province of Takeo.
An at-times strident critic of the government, Ley was shot dead while drinking coffee at a Phnom Penh petrol station last Sunday.
While City Hall on Friday said they had reached an agreement that the procession would take place yesterday, the funeral committee – a group of more than 20 family members, friends and colleagues – decided more time was warranted for the public viewing. Socheatvong yesterday slammed the change of heart as politically motivated.
“The interference of those people has become the subject of political interests,” he said, claiming the decision-making process had been taken out of the hands of the family. “It benefits their financial interests . . . they store the body to earn money, and it can earn $10,000 per day; they do not store the body for letting his soul rest in peace.
“Some politicians try to take advantage, and they said [Ley’s] body is the public’s body. But the body is still a human body and the family has the right to decide.”
Phnom Penh City Hall spokesman Mean Chanyada said the family and funeral committee had reached an agreement with the authorities but “changed their minds without stating any clear reasons”.
“We are very disappointed that they seem to mock the authorities,” he said.
But Ley’s pregnant widow, Bu Rachana, speaking from hospital where she is being cared for due to exhaustion, said the original plan had been to mourn him for 10 days to give people from the provinces the chance to share their sorrow, and that time had not yet elapsed.
“I want to look at my husband’s face a bit longer, since he is not going to sleep for just one day, but for the rest of my life,” she said. “Once I bring him [to the funeral], I will be apart from him forever. I need to look at his face for the last time,” she said.
Activist monk But Buntenh, a Ley supporter and member of the funeral committee, meanwhile, vehemently denied the move was political.
“I think the City Hall and the government has every right to say this, but I think their job at the moment is finding justice for Kem Ley and his family,” he said. “We are not trying to politicise Kem Ley’s body . . . we are not making any plans to earn more money.”
But in a Facebook post on Saturday, Buntenh had said that the funeral would “generate more income for the nation and the family” and that “Kem Ley’s body has passed beyond the family and . . . belongs to the public”.
He added that the committee had not yet reached a decision about when or where his body would be transported, though one committee member, who asked not to be named, yesterday put the date as July 24 – two weeks after Ley’s death.
Ley’s brother, Kem Rithseth, meanwhile, expressed unhappiness with the committee’s decision, saying he had left the group as it did not respect the majority view and that postponing the funeral had left his family in a state of limbo.
“We have to end this quickly, because the pagoda does not belong to us alone . . . If we do something that makes people stop respecting [my brother], his reputation will fall,” he said.
Analyst Chea Vannath said in the Buddhist tradition, keeping the body in view was not necessary to pay respects, but added there were “mixed feelings” – personal and political – for the public display of grief.
“It is very powerful when it is from the heart . . . People liked Kem Ley, even though they didn’t know him,” she said.
Additional reporting by Erin Handley