As hundreds of mourners poured into Takeo province yesterday to pay their respects to the slain political analyst Kem Ley and pray for his swift reincarnation, it was clear that, one year since his murder, his ideals have already been given new life in the hearts and minds of the Cambodian people.
Today marks exactly a year since Ley was shot dead in broad daylight at a Caltex coffee shop in the middle of Phnom Penh, a chilling assassination that made him a martyr and a potent symbol.
If the purpose of Ley’s death – which has been characterised by some as a government-sanctioned hit – was to quash his rhetoric and grassroots activism, then it was a failure, according to his many mourners.
One, Tuon Doy, 78, said he would have paid any amount of money to travel from his home of Kampong Cham to pay his respects to Ley.
“He is one of the bravest people,” Doy said, adding that Ley’s life was targeted because he directly criticised the government. “His legacy is through the people. The court does not provide justice. It’s the people and the youth that have to struggle for the success of the future. I believe there will be more people like him,” Doy said, rolling tobacco in a leaf. “Not only one, but a few people like him.”
Heang Horng, 80, purchased a compilation of Ley’s political fables, saying he was a “patriot” and his ideas should be shared with the younger generation.
“He has great ideas, and they are very short and beautiful and simple,” Horng said. “He speaks to truth without bias – what he sees, he speaks.”
Sot Udaumleakhana, a 19-year-old university student, said Ley’s most poignant tale involved the phrase “wipe your tears, continue your journey” – a phrase that has been adopted as a mantra among Ley’s disciples.
“He is in my heart, he dares to speak the truth,” she said. “He speaks to the youth to educate them not to be poisoned by others.”
“The people started to wake up after he got killed.”
Buddhist nun Nou Nhean expressed much regret at losing Ley.
“We pray for him to be reincarnated as soon as possible and to the make the country better,” Nhean said. “There is still no justice for him yet. We believe the one who was arrested is not really the murderer and there must be someone behind it,” she said.
Her sentiments were echoed by countless funeral attendees. Indeed, the “flawed trial” of Ley’s killer, Oeut Ang – also known by the alias “Choub Samlab”, or Meet to Kill – raised more questions than answers, prompting 164 human rights groups on Friday to demand an “independent, impartial, effective and transparent investigation into the killing”.
“Given the fact that the killing occurred against a backdrop of escalating attacks on human rights defenders and the political opposition, and in the context of a well-documented history of killings of human rights defenders with impunity in Cambodia, it is imperative that the Commission of Inquiry be staffed by individuals, including legal experts and United Nations human rights officials, with no ties to the [Royal Government of Cambodia],” they said.
The same concerns were posed in Melbourne, Australia, where a 1,000-strong crowd held a traditional Buddhist ceremony for Ley that was attended by federal MP Clare O’Niel, followed by a public forum with Victorian MP Hong Lim, labour activist Moeun Tola and Radio Free Asia presenter Chun Chanboth.
While the recent commune election was a hot topic, most participants raised questions over the Kem Ley investigations, said Chea Youhorn, president of the Cambodian Australian Federation.
“Absolutely everyone asked about justice for Kem Ley,” he said. “The government always talks about Choub Samlab. But everyone wanted to know who was behind Choub Samlab.”
For Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch, Ang was “at best a scapegoat for others who are still at large”. Ley’s death, he said, “was all about silencing a prominent critic and reiterating that speaking about such sensitive topics carries a deadly risk”.
One remembrance ceremony for Ley yesterday was forced to disband, after around 30 of Phnom Penh’s Chamkarmon district security guards ousted a handful of mourners from the Caltex station where Ley was murdered.
“Unfortunately when we arrived, the security guards pushed us out. They took the portrait, they took the flowers and they tried to disperse us when we are paying our respects to Kem Ley,” said Sou Mara, president of the Cambodian Food and Service Workers’ Federation.
Prom Samkan, the governor of Chamkarmon district, said no activity could take place without permission from the authorities, even as Mara stressed the location was a private business and he had notified the company of their small-scale prayer plans in advance.
“Regarding public order, when we allow them to do it, it will become bigger and firstly they have to have permission because it is a public place,” Samkan said.
Opposition party leaders Kem Sokha, Pol Ham, Mu Sochua and Eng Chhay Eang also paid their respects at Ley’s family home in Takeo.
“He gave me the direct message that he wanted the village and commune to be alive with development and giving the budget to the local level – it was his concept,” said Sokha, who campaigned heavily on a popular promise to give every commune in the country an annual budget of at least $500,000 to spend as it saw fit.
Aside from touting a politics inspired by Ley, Sokha promised that if his party won government they would find the real killer, adding the UN had an international human rights obligation to assist with an investigation.
“Justice for Dr Kem Ley cannot be buried because people still remember him and never forget him,” he said.
Ley’s brother, Kem Rithisith, looked up to his older brother as a hero and someone who always looked beyond himself.
“He even knew in advance that he was dead, but he still continued to speak the truth,” he said. “Through the Phnom Penh court trial we do not get justice. But we think one day we will get justice. In this world, there is no mystery that lasts forever.”
Rithisith believes those living in rural areas had become emboldened since Ley’s death, despite the fear engendered by the shooting.
Lao Mong Hay and Meas Ny, both prominent political analysts like Ley, agreed, with caveats.
“Publicly they are subdued, but inside themselves, there is still that kind of resentment against the regime,” Mong Hay said, adding he once believed Ley could have been prime minister.
“His ideas, his sprit, his ideals for a nation had a big impact on myself and my thinking.”Ny, who sat on a panel with Ley just days before his death, recalled his funerary car coming to a stop alongside him – unusual in Khmer traditions, where the body should continue moving.
“It might mean it’s just to say the last goodbye,” he said. “Maybe some public figures have fear, but the ordinary people are not afraid.”
Yet Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia, says it remains to be seen if fear or anger will prevail.
“The killing of Kem Ley created another martyr, in a very similar way to [slain unionist] Chea Vichea. It’s created another symbol of opposition.”
“It created a lot of anger and a lot of fear. Whether the anger will triumph over fear, it’s really too soon to say.”
“The question is whether he will have more power in death than he had in life.”
Additional reporting by Ananth Baliga