As the sun rose over Wat Chas in the capital’s Chroy Changvar district yesterday, the body of Kem Ley, encased in a glass casket and draped with a Cambodian flag, began its final journey.
Tens of thousands of Cambodians took to the streets to pay their respects to the slain political analyst as his funeral procession slowly rolled from the capital to his home province of Takeo, where he is expected to be buried today, according to his wife.
Ley was shot twice at close range while drinking his morning coffee at a petrol station in Phnom Penh on July 10.
“He was a person who dared to expose the truth,” said 28-year-old volunteer Neang Sinen, just before the analyst’s body departed the pagoda at about 6:45am in a truck converted into an elaborate wood-panelled hearse.
“This is why many people come here to join and share our regret. We’ve lost an important person.”
Preceded by several trucks carrying white parasols, a traditional band, huge posters of the anti-government critic and scores of monks, the convoy was surrounded by throngs of motorbikes, cars and tuk-tuks, which filled the street, flooded onto Chroy Changvar Bridge and spilled through thousands of onlookers waiting on the other side.
As the convoy passed along Monivong and then on to Russian Boulevard, thousands more lined the streets, waving Cambodian flags, holding pictures of Ley or readying their camera phones as they waited for his body to pass.
With tears in his eyes, Aom Dara, 35, waited near the Royal University of Phnom Penh.
“He is the most important guy in Cambodia, the reason is because he speaks out about what is black and what is white,” Dara, a factory worker and translator, said.
“Freedom is when people speak, and he was an example for us.”
But for the sound of Buddhist prayers, traditional music and scores on foot chanting, any distinction between the formal procession and the thousands of motorbikes, cars, vans and trucks who joined them as they headed to Takeo was quickly lost.
By the time the carriage reached Phnom Penh International Airport at about 11am, Russian Boulevard had become a sea of every vehicle imaginable stretching for kilometres in both directions.
“He was the one who spread the knowledge, did research and analysis about Cambodia’s development,” said 28-year-old IT worker Pitou Chan, who waited more than three hours near the airport to watch the procession.
“There are a lot who hold PhDs in this country, but they curry favour with the government and they will not share the reality, but he is the one who stood up and shared the truth.”
Though the alleged gunman, arrested soon after, claimed Ley owed him money, many – including the suspect’s family – say they don’t believe his “confession”, with Ley’s criticism of the government, political work and high profile leading to a prevailing view that his killing was a political assassination.
Responding to accusations of government involvement – levelled directly by Cambodia National Rescue Party leader Sam Rainsy and chanted by mourners at the crime scene – the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and prime minister quickly condemned the killing and even sought to suggest the opposition party was to blame.
As the procession made its way through the provinces, villagers lined both sides of National Road 3. Thousands of motorists held flags aloft. Many wore T-shirts printed with Ley’s face and his familiar slogans, such as “wipe your tears and continue the journey”.
“We demand justice,” read others, reflecting an extreme cynicism surrounding the current investigation by Cambodian authorities.
When the casket reached Ley’s family home in Tram Kak district’s Leay Bor commune in the early evening, 32-year-old garment worker Khim Srey Teang was among the mourners taking their seats under the marquee.
Scores more flocked to the casket, resting in what was once Ley’s front courtyard.
“He was a straight talker,” Srey Teang said, saying she doubted “the real killer” would be caught after referring to other cases where government involvement was suspected.
“In all the previous deaths, they have not found out who the killer is.”
Sitting in the family’s four-room home, its corners stuffed with reports and walls decorated with Angkorian-style carvings, Ley’s wife, Bou Rachana, who has publicly acknowledged a desire to seek asylum abroad for her and her children, had a simple request.
“I just want to ask for my family’s safety,” she said.
Additional reporting by Chhay Channyda