When Kem Ley was gunned down in broad daylight more than a year and a half ago, it sparked the Kingdom’s largest outpouring of grief since the death of King Father Norodom Sihanouk, the architect of Cambodia’s independence.
Widely revered for his ability to make political analysis relatable to everyday Cambodians, as well as for his fearlessness in criticising the government, Ley was shot to death in a Phnom Penh service station two days after he commented on Voice of America on a Global Witness report about the prime minister’s family and business interests. Many believed the killing to be politically motivated, and the motive of his assassin – that he killed Ley over an unpaid debt – was even questioned by the killer’s wife.
As people seethed at the apparent lack of progress in the investigation into Ley’s murder in the months that followed, numerous efforts to preserve Ley’s memory sprung up, from physical memorials to initiatives promoting the intellectualism Ley himself championed.
But now, with the government engaged in an ongoing crackdown on dissent, attempts to promote Ley’s legacy are fading – and those behind them increasingly fearful – just when the country needs him the most, according to his former friends and colleagues.
The tension between the desire to remember Ley and the necessity of navigating the delicate political situation is perhaps most visible at the Kem Ley Library, which had to close its doors in December.
The activist twins Chum Hour and Chum Hout were part of Ley’s project to set up libraries in every province to help students learn about Cambodia’s history, geography and philosophy. But most of the libraries never materialised, they say, because local authorities didn’t allow them to.
But using donations received before Ley’s death, the twins – both former environmental activists – managed to set up one such library in Phnom Penh’s Boeung Kak neighbourhood around the middle of last year, and decided to name it after Ley.
Initially it went well, they said, with a collection of over 10,000 books and about three or four students visiting a day, but as the political temperature rose, the visitors stopped coming.
“After Kem Sokha’s arrest, no more students came,” Hout said.
Hour maintained that the library was monitored, with surveillance becoming particularly visible the night before the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party was dissolved in November, when about 20 Military Police officers came by to check on the place.
Photos of the encounter exist, but Boeung Kak I Commune Police Chief Horm Kea denied the visit took place, saying he had “no idea where [the library] is”.
The twins insist the visit scared people away. Moreover, attention shifted from remembering Ley to political activism after the widely condemned arrest of Cambodia National Rescue Party leader Kem Sokha. The donations the twins had received from abroad now went to opposition party members instead, Hout said.
With students still staying away, the library had to close in December, they said. “It’s difficult to get youths engaged because they’re worried,” Hour said. “They asked us: ‘Do you want to be the second Kem Ley, who was murdered?’”
But the twins remain determined to continue Ley’s vision, though they weren’t sure where the money would come from. Though the Kem Ley Library has now closed its doors, Hour said they would open a new one – this time with no name, and no sign on the door.
Meanwhile, in Battambang, another group of students also opened a tiny library in honour of Ley. The library, called The Book of Faith, welcomes about 10 students a day, volunteer Nil Damnang said, and was home to about 500 to 600 books.
But Damnang explained that the library was only a half measure. The analyst, together with a group of students, had wanted to create an institute to teach students about human rights monitoring and evaluation activities.
“He went to Australia and got some funds, but we didn’t get the funds because he was shot dead,” he said, explaining Ley had been back for just about a month before he was killed.
After his death, the group was too scared to push further for the opening of the institute, and didn’t have money to continue activities, he said. About a year later they decided to at least open the library, using funds two of the students got from a young leadership program run by the US Embassy.
The library also hosts free workshops on career advice, skills training and the like, but Damnang said fear was looming over their heads. “We are afraid and concerned about political threats for our team,” he said, adding that police, security guards and others periodically came to question them at the library about where they received their funding.
This scrutiny was such that the students were afraid to even hang a photo of Ley at the library, Damnang said. Battambang police could not be reached.
“According to my observation, the people in Battambang seem to be quiet, but without being at peace,” Damnang said. “Even if they don’t show it, they still keep the anger in their heart.”
In Phnom Penh, Seng Sary, who had worked with Ley, said in an interview earlier this month that he and some others had been in the works of creating a Kem Ley foundation when things ground to a halt. “We applied to the Ministry of Interior about three months ago . . . but until today we didn’t get a response from the ministry,” he said.
Chhim Kan, director of the Interior Ministry’s Department of Associations and Political Parties, yesterday said this wasn’t true. “I just received the document in the last few days and am now reviewing their request,” he said.
Sary yesterday said his group had heard nothing from the ministry for months. The foundation, he said, supports in particular young environmental researchers with financial means and training, and gets young Cambodians involved in politics “like they used to [be]”.
Sary said Ley should be remembered as a hero, yet argued that Cambodian culture didn’t have any. “The hero is not really defined yet,” he said. “That’s why many politicians want that position.”
But for Sary, Ley was a role model to be followed. “We need to build a culture to support the good people, to support the hero. But now good people are always in trouble.”
Meanwhile, the Grassroots Democracy Party, which was co-founded by Kem Ley, is seeking to carry on Ley’s legacy in the political sphere, according to Sam Inn, a party spokesperson.
“We consider Kem Ley as our founding father and we put his picture in our leaflets as our founding father,” he said, praising Ley’s commitment to democratic processes and “braveness to speak the truth”.
The GDP also plan to build a prominent statue in Ley’s honour, when they “have the chance . . . to lead the government”, Inn said.
However, despite promising to field candidates in every province in this year’s national elections, the miniscule party faces tremendous hurdles in the face of the deep-pocketed, deeply entrenched CPP.
The party won 0.07 percent of commune council seats in the latest local elections.
One of Ley’s former colleagues and friends, fellow political analyst Lao Mong Hay, said the best way to honour Ley’s legacy was to see his murder fully investigated – a tall order in a country where politically thorny killings often remain unsolved.
Though Ley’s killer was caught shortly after the assassination, questions linger over his implausible motive, and even government officials have suggested they believed he did not act alone, all while appearing to do nothing to seek out possible conspirators.
“There’s been, here and there, expressions about [bringing] justice for him,” Mong Hay said. “But concrete action? No!”
“There’s been sort of a reigning fear, so nobody has taken any initiative to request – formally or informally – the authorities to conduct further investigation,” he said, insisting he knew of people withholding knowledge from the public.
Still, recourse remains a long shot. Saying he felt he owed Ley, Mong Hay suggested setting up a people’s investigation into the killing – “if the political situation calms down a little bit”.