“With one dead Kem Ley, a million Kem Leys are created to bridge the cares of Cambodian people to their nation. Kem Ley’s words are already in Cambodians’ hearts,” reads a stanza of Dr Kem Ley by poet Chhun Chamnap.
While thousands of mourners have paid their respects at Phnom Penh’s Wat Chas pagoda where Ley’s body lies in state, Chamnap was just one of many moved to express their grief, pain, anger in other ways, including poetry, song and art.
Shared over 4,500 times on Facebook, Chamnap’s kakete form poem (in this case composed in stanzas of seven verses with four words to a verse) and accompanying a pen-drawn portrait of the beloved public figure slain nearly two weeks ago captures sadness and shock while paying tribute to Ley’s service to the nation.
“All of those points could lead people to be strong and further his messages,” Chamnap told Post Weekend. “I understood that Dr Kem Ley didn’t regret to sacrifice himself, but he regretted not to teach his theory to more people. So, [for] that I have written this poem to wake up people to bring spirit and power to walk under his path and bring solidarity,” he said.
In composing the piece the day after Ley was shot to death at a Caltex service station by former monk and soldier Eout Ang, Chamnap said he “tried to bring encouragement to people after his death, not to give up”. “Dr Kem Ley is a model for people and the next generation,” he added.
Another poem, written the day of the killing and titled Dr Kem Ley dead by 19-year-old university student MengHeng Taing has received nearly 7,000 Facebook shares.
“My poem is to describe about his incident on that day and show who Dr Kem Ley was, but this poem is not related to other people or [political] meaning,” he said. “I think that this is what we should do for him, because he was a great person and people can share condolence in different platforms and talent, such as poetry, songs, painting, shaving [their heads], etc.”
Ven Son, one of Cambodia’s most respected poets, noted that when it comes to writing about individuals, “most poets write for fictional characters in stories such as in literature and film … it is rare to talk about one particular person”. For instance, Son pointed to poems composed for King Father Norodom Sihanouk after his death.
The poem Dr said Goodbye, penned by amateur poet Mang Kimsan, last week was sung during an RFA TV broadcast for which a vocalist was hired to perform the piece to the backdrop of black and white images from Ley’s wake. “I used to listen to him on radio shows, and my feeling [is to] want to write about his achievement,” Kimsan said in a phone interview.
Also written in kakete, Kimsan said he chose the form because it allowed the portrayal of Ley in different contexts, although not once is the subject mentioned directly by name. “For example: one verse talked about him that his speech was a gold word to bring the nation spirit or victory,” he said.
Beyond poetry and song, thousands of Facebook users have changed their profile images in honour of Kem Ley, often accompanied by the words: “Wipe your tears, continue your journey.”
Popular “troll” accounts also tipped their hats to Ley. One meme on the Troll Second-Hand Facebook page featuring an image of mourners reads like a call to arms: “Three shots: people who slept, woke up// awake people who ignored, regained interest// people who were interested but did not act, start to challenge // people who felt pity, love, and more pain// people who felt pain, try to challenge// Lets go!!!”
French-Cambodian cartoonist Patrick Samnang Mey, reacting to Ley’s death this week, illustrated the murder depicting the killer – identified by his alias ‘Chuob Samlab’ (Meet Kill) – as a marionette controlled by an unknown hand, playing to the belief that the killing was politically motivated, while blood from Ley’s body stains a Cambodian flag.
“To me, this political assassination … is another blow to Cambodia’s freedom of speech and is a stain [or] wound on Cambodia,” Mey wrote in an email.
Renowned for his ability to clearly communicate complex issues to the people by use of allegorical stories and his unfinished “fables”, the unifying power of Kem Ley’s pedagogy is perhaps shared by the art made in tribute to him.
“The power is that you can gather many people together to sing about the national interest over personal interests,” says Hang Vitou, a former student of the late professor and president of the Young Analysts Group.
“When somebody dies for the sake of the country we always sing songs to praise him as the hero,” he continued. “It means Kem Ley is a hero of freedom of expression.”