For days now, tens of thousands of mourners, rich and poor, from the cities and from the countryside, have been visiting Wat Chas pagoda to pay their respects to Kem Ley. A prominent political commentator, Kem Ley, 45 , was shot dead on July 10 over his morning coffee in a mini-mart in central Phnom Penh.
He was known across Cambodia for his plain-spoken criticism of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government and occasionally my own party, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, earning himself a reputation for being above the fray. In 2014, he created Khmer for Khmer, an advocacy group promoting civic engagement. It spawned the Grassroots Democracy Party, which plans to run in local elections in 2017 and the general election in 2018.
Kem Ley was beloved as one of Cambodia’s few public pedagogues: He reached a wide audience thanks to frequent radio shows and his Facebook posts, often political explainers about real-life cases of corruption and impunity told like old-fashioned fables.
Before his death, he was in the midst of what he called the “100 Nights” campaign, a vast tour of the country including homestays with poor rural families and visits to areas claimed by both Cambodia and Vietnam.
Even in Cambodia, a country with a history of violence, political and otherwise, the disbelief, condemnation and sadness sparked by Kem Ley’s murder have been unusual.
After gunning him down, the killer escaped on foot, until a mob that had gathered on his trail beat him. He was taken into custody by the police. The man first identified himself as “Meet Kill”, and claimed to have shot Kem Ley over a debt.
That story seems implausible, and relatives of both men have since reportedly said they didn’t think the two knew one another. And so the killer’s motives remain unclear, as does the question of whether he acted on anyone’s orders.
What already is clear, however, is that many Cambodians believe Kem Ley died for his political beliefs, and few have much faith in the investigation the government has promised to conduct. Whatever the truth behind Kem Ley’s death, the event already seems to mark a point of no return in public opinion: The fracture between the people and the government may now be irrevocable.
The credibility of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party has been shaky since the 2013 general election, when the CPP barely managed to hold on to its parliamentary majority. Given the irregularities surrounding that narrow victory – especially major discrepancies in voter registration lists – the result signalled a crisis of faith. There were mass protests in Phnom Penh for several months, until a deadly crackdown.
For a while in 2014 the government seemed willing to cooperate with the CNRP, but then it dropped even the semblance of that. For close to a year now, various officials, the courts and other public institutions have hounded opposition lawmakers, environmental and labour activists, and members of civil society – anyone, basically, who asks hard questions.
The CNRP’s leader, Sam Rainsy, has gone into exile abroad to avoid arrest in relation to an old defamation suit by the former foreign minister. Kem Sokha, the party’s deputy leader, is also being threatened with a defamation suit for a statement he is said to have made to his alleged mistress. He has sought refuge at CNRP headquarters since late May.
Two CNRP parliamentarians have been imprisoned, in violation of their constitutionally protected parliamentary immunity, on charges that they posted online documents that inaccurately describe Cambodia’s border with Vietnam.
Several opposition MPs face charges of insurrection for leading a peaceful protest in July 2014 calling for freedom of speech and assembly that devolved into violence after state security forces intervened.
Four members of Adhoc, one of the country’s leading human rights organisations, have been imprisoned for allegedly bribing a witness in the case against Kem Sokha. So has one member of the National Election Commission, the body tasked with redrawing voter registration lists ahead of the next elections. A staffer from the United Nations’ human rights office in Phnom Penh has also been charged in relation to the case.
These instances of repression are the direct work of state organs, whereas the motives behind Kem Ley’s murder remain murky. But people are wary and angry, and they are likely to be sceptical of any conclusion reached by a government investigation.
Just days before his death, Kem Ley spoke on Radio Free Asia about a recent report by Global Witness, a watchdog NGO, detailing the staggering fortunes amassed by Hun Sen’s relatives and close associates through the abuse of government power and corrupt business practices.
Government mouthpieces and Hun Sen himself have asked the public to consider who might benefit from Kem Ley’s death, seemingly implicating the CNRP. But Cambodians won’t be duped. If anything, they seem increasingly resolute in standing their ground and speaking truth to power, as Kem Ley did.
Immediately after he was shot, people at the scene gathered around his body to protect it, turned his car into a makeshift hearse and in an impromptu funeral march escorted it to the pagoda. Others quickly rallied to find out the killer’s real name by disseminating his photo on Facebook.
If Kem Ley’s murder was designed to instill fear, it has only stoked outrage and determination. Cambodian officials often issue warnings about a “colour revolution”, and the prime minister has cautioned Cambodians against calling for change on social media. The Hun Sen government is afraid of its own people. Perhaps it has reason to be.
Mu Sochua is a member of the National Assembly of Cambodia from the Cambodia National Rescue Party and a board member of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights.