The killing of Kem Ley: what it means for Cambodia

Photo: Pisethinfo/Wikimedia

By Dung Phan

On a Sunday morning, more than 100,000 Cambodians from all corners of the country made their way to Phnom Penh to accompany a leading critic of the Cambodian government on his funeral procession. Brought low by two gun shots, slain political analyst Kem Ley’s death has set off a rare wave of grief, leaving both Cambodians and the government at a crossroads.

Kem Ley was well-known across Cambodia as an independent-minded commentator who criticised the ruling party and the opposition alike, but singled out Hun Seng’s ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP). However, even among government critics, Kem Ley is different. Cambodians loved him because he was not only telling the truth with solid facts and figures, but was also representing thousands of people who could not speak up with their own voices.

“I regarded him as my god because of his bravery, cleverness. His death was as if I had lost something personal,” said Chun Eang, holding Kem Ley’s portrait.

He vowed to devote his life to the search for the truth on a wide range of politically sensitive issues. He reached out to the poor through radio programmes, and to young educated people via fables on Facebook. He followed the mould of George Orwell, using animals and many other familiar images to criticise individuals indirectly.

“It was easy to understand what he said. He used simple language that ordinary people could understand. That’s why so many people have come to join the funeral,” said Prak Sam Eng, who had traveled from Prey Veng province.

The government’s worries

In a country with a history of violence, Kem Ley’s murder comes as no surprise. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy, the strongest rival to Hun Sen, survived a grenade attack in 2013. In 2004 another prominent Cambodian government critic, Chea Vichea, was killed.

But Cambodians now have better ideas of what is going wrong in their country, and who should be held responsible for that. And their questions are getting louder. Ask anyone who attended the funeral procession and there were no doubts that Kem Ley died for his political beliefs. Few have the faith in the investigation that Hun Sen has called for.

In the days before his death, Kem Ley discussed a report from Global Witness that accused the Cambodian leader’s children and extended family of using a huge and corrupt network to build a fortune of over $200m.

“I don’t believe the man they arrested is the real killer,” said Moeung Dara, waiting for Kem Ley’s body to pass. “I strongly believe it was politically motivated because it is the same thing over and over again,” he added.

A common belief is that such killings serve as a warning to others not to step on the wrong toes. “The authorities just wanted to calm us down for a short while,” a 24-year-old law student named Rattana told the Phnom Penh Post newspaper.

Cambodians officials often issue warnings about a “colour revolution”, a term used to refer to non-violent protest movements that set to topple a government. In March, university student Kong Raiya was sentenced to 18 months in jail fora Facebook post calling for this type of social change.

However, Meas Nee, a social development analyst who worked alongside Kem Ley, told VOA Khmer that the Hun Sen administration was missing the point. “Cambodian society today has reached a crossroads where we see people having a ‘thinking revolution,” he said.  Things would get worse if the government started to take “measures of intimidation and cracking down against it instead,” he added.

Even if Kem Ley’s murder was designed to instil fear, it was the wrong message to young Cambodians: In Cambodia, one can get into trouble if they are too well educated.

“It makes us feel pressured that no matter how much we try to get educated, we still have pressure to be not so smart,” said Catherine Harry, a 21-year-old undergraduate student in Phnom Penh.

In this environment  there is no encouragement for the youth to put effort into the country’s development. And the pressure of hiding their abilities may create a brain drain as outspoken young people with ideas choose to study abroad and not return.

The bottom line is that whether or not the poor indebted man who allegedly killed Kem Ley over a debt of $3,000 was behind his death, or whether the young, more educated generation will stand up and raise their voice, it is clear that the split between the people and the government is growing.

It was not Kem Ley alone that Hun Sen’s administration was taking on.  As the man himself said,  Cambodians will “wipe your tears, continue your journey.” Where they are headed is still uncertain.