Friends and colleagues yesterday, still coming to grips with the murder of outspoken political commentator Kem Ley, spoke in glowing terms of a man they said stood out among his peers.
“It’s going to have a chilling effect, and I don’t think there will be anyone who will replace him any time soon,” Ou Virak said of his long-time friend, who was gunned down in a mini mart as he took his morning coffee.
While he never practised medicine after graduating Cambodia’s Medical Science University, the 45-year-old Takeo native, who is survived by a pregnant wife and four children, employed a doctor’s toolkit in analysing the Kingdom’s ills.
After leaving a low-paying job in the Health Ministry’s Department of Communicable Disease Control in 1996 he pursued a master’s degree in Thailand, where he found his second vocation – as a researcher.
Ley first gravitated naturally to health issues, such as HIV, but would go on to tackle subjects further afield from his school background: good governance, media freedom and land grabs to name a few. He eventually earned a doctorate in social sciences.
A mentor to countless Cambodian researchers, Ley developed a reputation for encouraging others to aspire to more, especially the younger generation. Former Amnesty International Southeast Asia researcher Rupert Abbott yesterday attested to that commitment.
“[He] could have made a lot more money and had an easier life had he chosen a different life. He cared deeply for Cambodia and the new generation and he’s given his life for that,” Abbott said.
Having risen to prominence as a political commentator during the 2013 post-election crisis, in late 2014, he founded reformist social network Khmer for Khmer. In June of 2015, he established the Grassroots Democratic Party, designed to “teach . . . the principles of intraparty democracy”, which he felt Cambodia desperately lacked.
Ley disliked being referred to as an analyst, but his peers and the public at large will remember him as a vital one, and one of the few who criticised government and opposition with equal vigour.
“He was independent and he was not afraid,” said Oum Piseth, one of the thousands that marched alongside Ley’s car as it carried his lifeless body to Chas pagoda yesterday.
“He got killed because he was a political analyst, and we love him because when he saw something was right, he said it was right.”
Additional reporting by Mech Dara and Vandy Muong