It’s over a month and a week since Dr. Kem Ley, perhaps Cambodia’s most prominent independent political commentator, was gunned down in broad daylight in a Phnom Penh cafe. On the surface of it, Ley’s killer was a loner with a personal grudge, however, it’s widely assumed his death was all about cold, hard calculation and orchestrated high up among Cambodia’s political power echelons. His death has been condemned nationwide, by the British Ambassador and the US State Department, and a range of national and international organisations such as the watchdog Transparency International, which in a statement called for a thorough investigation.
The role of someone like Kem Ley in any society is to make those in authority accountable, a role much like that of a functioning free press. This role is so much harder in some places than in others. Unfortunately, in some countries being someone like that can be dangerous, or downright deadly, and Cambodia is one of those countries. Sadly, he is the third notable activist to be killed after union leader Chea Vichea in 2004 and environmental activist Chut Wutty in 2012. Scores of other government critics and rights workers have been arrested in recent months while others have been tied up in ongoing legal cases.
Kem Ley didn’t hold back and didn’t hide. Most mornings he would meet with friends and colleagues for coffee. Just 48 hours earlier he met with five young activists at the same gas station convenience store at the intersection of Monivong and Mao Tse Toung boulevards where he was later shot down. The day before he met the head of the Independent Monk Network for Social Justice, But Buntenh. “He told me he was being tracked at his house and at the coffee shop,” said Buntenh, who called for the government to release security camera footage of the incident. Authorities did come and seize the camera footage but refused to say what they’d done with it.
In the days leading up to his death, friends reported seeing men with walkie-talkies nearby monitoring his movements and listening to their conversations. Aware of this, Ley directed the others to take photos in the direction of the unidentified observers who were, according to one friend present, “all big; three of them constantly walked in and out while one sat nearby listening to the conversation.” Another in attendance claimed there were four men. In the wake of his killing, people close to Ley, including his nephew, said the critic had expressed concerns for his safety.
In his political commentaries popularised on social media, Kem Ley was seen as balanced, in that he was critical of both the government and opposition parties. In a country where political discourse has been traditionally light on the ground or almost entirely absent, he advocated for a new era of clean politics in a notoriously corrupt nation which is expected to hold communal elections next year and a general election in 2018.
‘Elections are nothing new in Cambodia,’ wrote Jeffrey Gallup in his treatise on the Cambodia’s electoral system, ‘but genuinely competitive ones have been a rarity.’ History has shown in Cambodia, elections were held even under the most undemocratic governments, but they were aimed at bolstering the legitimacy of the incumbent regime and consolidating its power. Their purpose, Stephen Heder wrote in the Phnom Penh Post way back in 1998, ‘was not to give the people a free choice of government.’
Kem Ley’s frustration with the political status quo in Cambodia led him to create the Grassroots Democracy Party (GDP) in 2015, an effort to put control of a party in the hands of its members. The fledging GDP now more than 2,000 members, 12 commune conferences under its belt and a set of structures and principles – many devised by, or at least in consultation with, Ley – and has moved a long way towards the vision its founders first discussed in coffee shops around Phnom Penh.
After founding the GDP though, he left to return to commentating on politics and traveling around the country for meetings and lectures. The word was Ley had also been advising the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), now Cambodia’s main political opposition force; a merger between the Human Rights Party and the party of established opposition leader, Sam Rainsy, a sort of combined populist, nationalist entity.
Kem Ley was born near Phnom Penh in Takeo Province in October 1970. He trained a medical doctor specialising in public health and epidemiology, though he never practised. Later he studied at Chulalaongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand’s highest rated tertiary institution, followed by a PhD from Malaya University, whose Vice-Chancellors have included Oxford dons.
Ley spent much of his earlier career working in the area of HIV with Cambodian NGOs. Later he worked for the UN on projects for people living with HIV. However, in an illustration of his principles, a friend of his recalled he didn’t last very long there, after he had informed his superiors about some irregularities in the finances only to be told, “that is not your business”. Kem Ley was the kind of man to make it his business.
Afterwards he was executive director of the HIV/AIDS Coordinating Committee, the broadest network of NGOs working on HIV in Cambodia, and was admired for his vision and courage for being outspoken against pressure from some strong personalities on his governing board, or from well-funded NGOs. His resignation left a big hole, and a suitable replacement was hard to find.
Later he did some consultancy work – training, strategic planning, assessments of NGOs working with key populations in HIV and AIDS, before starting his own outfit, training interested students and young professionals in research, monitoring and evaluation methods. His main office at the time was above a former restaurant on Street 360, down in “NGO-land”, that part of town so named because most NGOs set up shop. His office was a favoured place for used by groups to hold meetings regularly on various development issues.
Ley was considered early on to be somewhat of a maverick even within the NGO community, questioning established leaders and power, as well as corruption within the ranks of some of the NGOs. Back then, some NGO leaders reportedly took that personally. He was a maverick in a country where deference to those in authority is the norm and unfettered free speech, especially pertaining to criticism of the government, is often followed by retribution. Cambodia, some have said, is ‘a nation without a robust tradition of different views being aired in public.’
Ley really came to public notice as a “political analyst”, a phrase coined in the media, and vocal supporter of human rights in Cambodia, which often brought him into conflict with Cambodia’s ruling party, and it’s leader, Prime Minister Hun Sen. Publicly, Ley came across very well, perhaps better than any other current public political figure, perhaps too well. He was charismatic, articulate, with a beaming smile. He was after all, rather photogenic; smart and handsome.
He was a committed family man often seen with his wife, Bou Rachana, with whom he had four sons and another child on the way. In the weeks leading up to his death, he had proudly gathered them together clad in black for photographs in support of the “Black Monday” campaign to free imprisoned human rights activists. Since her husband’s murder, Bou Rachana, has expressed a desire to move abroad for the safety of herself and her children.
Before his death Kem Ley was in the midst of his “100 days with Khmer Families” campaign in which he spent time staying with the rural families to dig even more deeply to find out the root causes of the many issues facing Cambodia today.
Much of his writing was posted on his Facebook Page. This included ongoing works like his 90-episode political articles which he called comedy series. Before his murder he had just finished his 19th episode. Also included were briefings of new findings during his 100-day campaign, and another story he named, the “Black Man in a White Shirt”. He also criticised the government over illegal logging, border issues, and corruption. Just a few days before his death, Kem Ley was approached by many local and international press to ask for his comments on the Global Witness report, “Hostile Takeover: The Corporate Empire of Cambodia’s Ruling Family, which alleges the ruling family own or part-control companies with listed capital of more than US$200 million, and spanning most major sectors of Cambodia’s economy.
The report and its findings have been denounced by the prime minister’s family who, in an article published in the Cambodia Daily, accused independent media outlets of collusion with the report’s publishers and claimed the report ‘was full of lies but offered no evidence of any mistakes, save for one son’s military rank.’ The country’s commerce ministry has since removed its website of all corporate shareholder information, ‘in order to bring the site into compliance with the law.’
After his death Ley’s body lay at Wat Chas pagoda in Phnom Penh. Kem Ley’s funeral was held on Sunday, 24 July, and began early. The funeral cortege made its way through Phnom Penh watched by crowds estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands. Some people, expat Cambodians, even travelled from as far away as Australia. Crowd numbers were believed to be similar to those for the late Prince Norodom Sihanouk, Cambodia’s most prominent political figure of the 20th century, who died in 2012. But unlike the atmosphere for Sihanouk’s funeral, which was one of overwhelming grief, even for many of the younger mourners who’d not known the Cambodia of his era, Kem Ley’s funeral produced a mix of emotions including a seething anger and resentment among the massed crowds.
His body, encased in a glass casket and draped with a Cambodian flag, began its final journey in a truck converted into an elaborate wood-panelled hearse. The hearse was preceded by several trucks carrying white parasols, a traditional band, huge posters of him and scores of monks, the convoy was surrounded by throngs of motorbikes, cars and tuk-tuks, which filled the street, flooded onto Chroy Changvar Bridge, the Japanese-Friendship Bridge over the Tonle Sap, and spilled through thousands of onlookers waiting on the other side.
As the convoy passed along Monivong and then on to Russian Boulevard, thousands more lined the streets, watched from rooftops and other vantage points, many waving Cambodian flags, holding pictures of Ley or readying their camera phones as they waited for his body to pass. By the time the carriage reached Phnom Penh International Airport by late morning the main thoroughfare, Russian Boulevard, was a sea of every vehicle imaginable stretching for kilometres in both directions.
Some hoped Ley’s death will be the catalyst to improve democracy in Cambodia. Boeung Kak land activist Tep Vanny said her group – which this week suspended their “Black Monday” campaign to free several jailed human rights activists in order to attended the funeral – would fight for the truth. “Our purpose will remain the same . . . but we will add this new case, because we want real justice for him,” Vanny said. Ley was regarded as a unique figure in Cambodia and he feared next year’s commune elections may lack an informed electorate without him.
Koul Panha, head of election watchdog and ERA member Comfrel, said “Even people who did not care about politics listened to him, and that starts a discussion about politics. He added that while Ley’s death had sparked more open discussion about politics among young Cambodians on social media, he worried that the momentum was unsustainable without the man himself. Moreover, he feared older generations with memories of past violence would now shy away from publicly discussing politics.
San Chey, executive director of transparency NGO ANSA, said he worried Ley’s killing was another nail in the coffin of hopes of legitimate elections. “There will be an election, but we are not sure that it will be free and fair,” Chey said, adding that Sunday’s murder was just the latest in a series of events stifling political debate.
The organisation also expressed concern at the “increasing restrictions” on NGOs and the “harassment” of activists. In recent months, opposition members and several human rights workers have been jailed, while legal cases have been brought against the Cambodia National Rescue Party’s president Sam Rainsy and acting president Kem Sokha.
One of the first developments in the aftermath of Ley’s murder, was the redeployment of government tanks from disputed border regions with Thailand, principally Preah Vihear in the north. Tank transporters were seen moving through the capital late at night causing a stir amongst local residents. The official line reported in the press was the order to return to bases around the capital Phnom Penh was ‘for maintenance’. Some troops were also being recalled from the border, among them members of the prime minister’s elite Bodyguard Unit.
The sudden transfer of heavy weaponry at the same time that the political situation Cambodia is getting tense was thought hardly surprising given previous government responses to increased political tensions. Regional analyst Carl Thayer said when interviewed that there was a precedent for the recalling of troops and hardware to the capital in times of tension.
“There were roughly similar displays of military force following the outbreak of civil unrest after the 2013 Cambodian national elections,” Thayer wrote, and that “such military displays were common among military dictatorships [similar to those] in Thailand that either threatened to conduct a coup or put on a show of force to prevent a coup.”
The Cambodia human rights group Licadho, yesterday called on the government to explain why “a significant number of military tanks, soldiers and weaponry are being brought to Phnom Penh since last Monday”.
Another possible impact of Kem Ley’s murder is a risk of jeopodising the electoral process with voter registration from the 2017 communal elections due to start in September this year. Election Reform Alliance, a collection of NGOs working to strengthen the electoral system, issued a statement yesterday afternoon saying Ley’s death “will have a very big impact on the political process and the upcoming electoral process”.
The government has promised an inquiry into Kem Ley’s murder. But given previous such inquiries into political assassinations and human rights abuses, many inside and outside Cambodia are sceptical the outcome will be anything short of a whitewash.
Kem Ley was the kind of individual every society needs and shouldn’t be without; he was both engaged and engaging with an enquiring mind. Cambodia is all the worse for his passing.
Dr. Kem Ley, physician, political commentator and media-styled analyst, activist, father and husband. Born 19 October 1970, Tram Rak Commune, Takeo Province, Cambodia. Died, 10 July 2016, Phnom Penh.