The wife of slain political analyst Kem Ley, Bou Rachana, yesterday said she was grateful to begin a new life with her five sons on Australian shores, where she vowed to continue to seek justice for her husband.
The family arrived safely in Melbourne, Australia, in the early hours of Saturday morning, more than 18 months after the broad-daylight murder of Ley, widely believed to have been a politically motivated killing.
“I am so excited and thankful for our Cambodian-Australian [community] for helping us to reach this safe and democratic country,” Rachana said in a live Radio Free Asia broadcast from Australia late last night.
Rachana and her children fled to Thailand and sought asylum after Ley was shot on July 10, 2016. She was pregnant at the time with Ley’s fifth son.
Victorian MP Hong Lim, who worked to bring the Leys to Australia, said that it would be “an understatement” to say he felt “happy and relieved” the family had finally arrived.
Lim said the family was granted visas late last week, and while they expected to take a few days before boarding a flight bound for Australia, the embassy in Bangkok reportedly wanted them “to leave instantly”.
On top of that, they faced an excruciating moment at the airport when authorities initially wouldn’t allow toddler Kem Ley Vireak – Rachana’s youngest son, who was born just months after Ley’s death – to fly.
“He was not born in Cambodia and does not have Cambodian papers, so they would not allow them to leave,” Lim said. Quick intervention by the Australian Embassy smoothed their exit.
On another continent, worries among those eagerly awaiting the Leys’ arrival began to percolate.
“I just didn’t know what to do. We believed that something must have happened – was [Prime Minister] Hun Sen trying to block them? We didn’t know, and so we were so, so scared,” Lim said.
Those fears were in part due to the recent extradition of Sam Sokha, a refugee living in Thailand, sent back to Cambodia despite her UN-recognised status. She is now in a Cambodian prison serving a two-year sentence for throwing a sandal at a billboard featuring the face of Hun Sen.
Meanwhile, last month, activist monk But Buntenh, labour rights campaigner Moeun Tola and independent media advocate Pa Nguon Teang were all charged with “breach of trust” for allegedly misappropriating funds raised for Ley’s funeral – despite his family saying the accusations are baseless.
“Because of all that, we feel very strongly that Hun Sen could do the same thing to Rachana . . . give her a case to answer to the court,” Lim said.
Rachana’s brother in law, Noeun Channy, said the news of their arrival in Australia came as a surprise to him and his wife, Rachana’s sister Bou Y Molita.
“Last night the whole family cried . . .the whole family is so excited that the dream came true,” Channy said. But the tears were bittersweet. The urgency of the Leys’ departure meant they could not say a final farewell at the airport as planned.
Channy said the family had endured a great deal in exile, such as Rachana’s trauma after the violent death of her husband, as well as the lack of access to education for her sons.
“All of them are smart as their father and they told me, after they succeed in their education they’ll come back to Cambodia and do the same as their father – contribute to society for better change and helping the country to promote democracy, human rights and freedom,” he said.
Last week, opposition figure Sam Rainsy questioned why the Australian government had not yet brought the family there, noting an expensive deal to relocate refugees from the Australian detention island of Nauru to Cambodia might make it “embarrassing” to accept Cambodian refugees.
The Australian government declined to comment on individual visa cases yesterday, but in a statement late last week, it stressed that “the MOU on refugee settlement is not a driver of Australia’s approach to Cambodia’s human rights and democracy”.
“Australia remains deeply concerned by the political situation in Cambodia, particularly actions to restrict free media, constrain civil society and repress the opposition ahead of the 29 July national election,” a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokesperson said.