Today August 10, marks the first month anniversary of the murder of Cambodian political figure and analyst, Dr Kem Ley. He was shot while taking his morning cup of coffee at the Bokor Caltex station, at the junction of Monivong and Mao Tse Tung Road in Phnom Penh.
It’s a place where we had met before, many years before he became known as an outspoken critic of political leaders and parties, both government and opposition. During his two week wake, mourners lined up in the hundreds to pay homage; when he was buried in his hometown of Takeo on July 24, it was estimated that the crowd in the caravans and along the way paying their respects was in the hundreds of thousands.
But who was Dr Kem Ley, and how did he become, in death, to be such a prominent presence in Cambodian politics, such that some are demanding that a national holiday be celebrated in his name? That is a question best left to those attuned to contemporary Cambodian politics, and those who know him much better; not being a Khmer citizen, and with a limited knowledge of the language, it would be presumptuous to put forward an opinion on this.
But what I can share is what I have personally experienced, through meeting and interacting with Kem Ley, in various capacities, especially in the years 2004-2011, before he entered the political fray and started to be quoted in the press as a “political analyst”.
I first met him back in the years 2002-2004, when he was working with a prominent HIV/AIDS NGO, KHANA, which I was helping with fundraising and technical support on working with MSM (men having sex with men) and drug users. He left in 2004, and our paths crossed again, when he at a UN project on the Greater Involvement of People living with HIV (GIPA).
A year later, I interviewed him for a Global Fund on HIV/AIDS project. He didn’t last very long there, remarking that he had informed superiors about some irregularities in financial matters and he had just been told, “that is not your business”.
At the HIV/AIDS Coordinating Committee (HACC), the broadest network of NGOs working on HIV in Cambodia, he was executive director from 2007 to 2009, and admired for his vision and courage for being outspoken against pressure from some strong personalities on his governing board, or from well-funded NGOs. After he left, it took over a year and a half before HACC could recruit a suitable replacement.
We did a few bits and pieces of consultancy work together – training, strategic planning, assessments of NGOs working with key populations in HIV and AIDS. Later he started his own outfit, training interested students and young professionals in research, monitoring and evaluation methods.
His being a physician, with specialised training in public health and epidemiology, would be a great asset – he could talk about wide ranging health issues, and back it up with data and statistics, and draw parallel observations that were logical and sensible.
His main office at that time was at the former Baitong restaurant on St 360, a favoured place for CSO groups to hold meetings and discussions on development issues, and we would bump into each other there regularly.
But even within the NGO community, often his role would be that of a maverick, questioning established leaders and power, as well as corruption within the ranks of some of the NGOs. Some NGO leaders took that personally, and took it to reflect that Kem Ley was “against the NGOs” – perhaps a defensive and short sighted impression.
Of his budding political career, and his role as an “independent political analyst”, I can only recall what I have read in the English language press and on occasional social media postings, and some clips from radio interviews. Often those folksy commentaries were reduced to a few sentences and soundbytes, but they usually made good memes and copy. I do not know if he did more in-depth analyses – perhaps he was too stretched and busy to do that.
I last saw him a few months before the murder. I was on my bicycle and he was crossing Norodom Boulevard late in the afternoon, going for a walk at the park near the Independence Monument. I waved, we chatted for a few minutes, and I recall telling him, “Be careful – you might be upsetting many people in power”, and he just gave back one of his enigmatic smiles.
I will remember for a long time that engaging smile, and the sharp mind fed by an inquisitive and critical eye, a rare quality in Cambodia these days.
Dr Vicente Salas
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