Civil society yesterday refused to be cowed by the Sunday morning murder of leading political commentator Kem Ley, with many saying that concerns for their own safety are now secondary to their determination not to be silenced.
Seventy NGOs endorsed a statement condemning the “brutal murder” of Kem Ley, insisting analysts be allowed to continue their work “without fear of violence and intimidation”.
Koul Panha, head of election watchdog Comfrel, said he feared Ley’s murder was the latest escalation in a troubling series.
“I see a pattern that concerns me: the crackdown on lawmakers, the arrest of human rights activists, and now assassination. I’m very concerned, because during the ’90s this happened also,” Panha said, adding that a muffling of civil society had begun before Ley’s death.
But there was little evidence of that muffling yesterday among civil society members contacted by the Post. Moeun Tola, head of labour rights NGO Central, said the fate of human rights defenders is “not secure in a country of human rights violations” but that for “the youth, the young generation, we need to do something”.
“Everyone has fear,” he said. “But I compare it to when you fall sick. You go to the doctor and he says you need to get injections. You will get hurt by the injections, but the hurt that you get is very short, and after, your sickness will be gone. That’s the point I explained to my family.
“We understand that the abuser will never be happy to see us speaking about them. Their intention is to hide everything as much as possible, so we need to do the opposite.”
Similarly defiant was Chak Sopheap, head of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, where she and Ley were colleagues for a time.
“One murder happened; it’s traumatic, but it’s not the only incident that has happened,” Sopheap said.
“As civil society activists, we all know the risks ahead. Kem Ley knew the risks.
“To let this incident silence us, it’s a victory for those who want to silence us. The only step ahead is to continue our operations as usual. As long as we stay peaceful, stay on our mandate to protect human rights, we have done our role.”
Preap Kol, executive director of Transparency International Cambodia, said in an email that the organisation’s often statistics-driven output left nowhere to hide.
“There is no room for adjustment, even though we know that we may face various consequences for speaking the truth,” Kol said.
Analyst Ou Virak reflected on Sunday that had someone else been shot that day, Ley would not have backed down in the face of violence.
“I think he would stand up and defend and continue the work. He would continue to speak his mind and continue to tell it as it is,” Virak said.
Meanwhile, the Cambodia National Rescue Party issued a statement expressing concern for the safety of its lawmakers, asking them to use the party offices as a safe haven as necessary.
Lawmakers Eng Chhay Eang and Ou Chanrith yesterday said that party members had legitimate reason to be concerned, given their vocal opposition to the government.
“We have noted in the past that these cases always take place against groups opposing the government,” Chhay Eang said. “We will still fulfil our role as lawmakers but we must be careful.”
However, Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said the opposition had no reason to be afraid.
“Don’t worry, none of the CNRP lawmakers are going to die,” he said.
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