Delays in the investigation of Kem Ley’s death: did he die for nothing?

Photo: Kem Ley/Facebook
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The shockwaves from the murder of activist Kem Ley continue to resonate around Cambodia but little progress has been made in investigating his death. Calls are increasing for the United Nations to step in as leader Hun Sen again proves himself reluctant to tolerate the rising populism in his country.

By Dung Phan

An atmosphere of gloom hangs over Cambodia. It is all the more palpable at the protests demanding an investigation into the murder of political commentator Kem Ley. Hundreds of protesters wore black T-shirts during the “Black Monday” campaign in Phnom Penh and in front of a restaurant where Prime Minister Hun Sen’s eldest son met supporters in Melbourne. The government feels the threat of it too. It reminds them of the haunting era of the Khmer Rouge when the only colour they were allowed to wear was black.

Three months ago, in response to the rare wave of grief from more than 100,000 Cambodians, Hun Sen shared his condolences over the death of Kem Ley on his Facebook page saying “I condemn this brutal act,” and ordered an investigation into the killing. But now, the delay and slow progress around the investigation have again triggered public outrage.

There were 200 protesters, many of whom wore t-shirts with Kem Ley’s face, held banners with slogans saying “Beast Go To Hell” and they shouted at Lieutenant General Manet as he went to meet the ruling party’s supporters at a restaurant in Melbourne. “As we all are Khmer, please, brothers and sisters who go to eat the offering, ask [Lt. Gen. Manet] who killed Kem Ley. Please answer,” said Cambodian-Australian politician Hong Lim, the leader of the protest.

There is little hope that the government will carry out any investigation. Most people believe it was the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) which ordered the murder. When making this accusation they refer to the impunity seen after the murder of union leader Chea Vichea in 2014 and forestry activist Chhut Wutty in 2012.

In line with this view, the government has made little effort in the case, except to consistently deny the suggestions for a Kem Ley memorial. Last week, the Phnom Penh municipal government also rejected a request to hold a 100-day ceremony at the central Wat Botum Park. And then on Friday it rejected a request to hold one at the Wat Chas pagoda where Ley had previously laid in state.

Blaming the victims

It appears that the images of massive crowds of mourners taking part in a funeral procession last July are still haunting the ruling party. However, instead of showing goodwill in response to most Cambodians’ expectation, they have started to “victim blame.”

He’s not a public figure; he’s just an outspoken person. He’s not like the King or someone like that,” said Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan “Those people cannot just appoint him a hero. It is not the jungle,” the spokesman explained. “He’s just a private person. If anyone wants to treat him as a god, go ahead, and if you want to respect him as a hero, go ahead. But don’t impose it on the nation.”

Khuong Sreng, a deputy city governor even implied that the funeral committee and the former friends of Ley were using the ceremony for their benefit. “If we scrutinise this funeral, it might not be a traditional funeral. It is set up differently, and could it be seen as a political thing, or for money collection?” Sreng said, asking why it was the funeral committee that had sought permission and not Ley’s wife.

In fact, his wife Bou Rachana had fled the country with her sons to seek permanent asylum out of fear for their safety. And this had hindered efforts to find out more about her husband’s murder, said the Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak. “I felt sorry…because the victim’s family fled the country,” General Sopheak said. “She did not cooperate with us.

The cat and mouse game

And that is not the only way that the government is trying to distract from criticism. To ensure the country receives foreign aid and international support, leader Hun Sen knows “the cat and mouse game” is essential in maintaining a superficial democracy. This means he needs an opposition party to exist, but still retain control himself.

Publicly the opposition CNRP Vice President Kem Sokha urged supporters to avoid “violent, rude or attacking words” during the Pchum Ben holiday not long before Hun Sen declared a “ceasefire” amid growing tension. However, on Monday his political rivals claimed that they received two private messages via WhatsApp; one of which threatened “bloodshed” if the protesters confronted the Prime Minister’s eldest son in Australia. Quickly after these messages arrived, opposition lawmaker Un Sam An was given a two and a half year term of imprisonment over Facebook posts critical of the government’s work demarcating Cambodia’s border with Vietnam.

When Kem Ley created the Grassroots Democracy Party, he said that “he was fed up with the country’s political scene,” and hoped that a newly-founded network would focus on crucial issues which are being ignored by both parties. And while the politicians that remain are still fighting  for support in the approaching election, poor Cambodians have lost the chance to get what they deserve.