A file image of a woman at the grave of Cambodian critic Kem Ley on the first anniversary of his murder on July 9, 2017. Kem Ley, a popular and charismatic political analyst, was shot twice in the head as he sipped coffee in Phnom Penh — a brazen assassination that sent shockwaves through the country's already beleaguered activist community. (Photo by Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP)
At a minimart near a Caltex gas station in downtown Phnom Penh, Heng Keoum Hong, 25, paid his respects to Kem Ley, a prominent political commentator who was assassinated in the same store three years ago. Hong becomes emotional when he thinks about the brutal murder that shocked a nation.
“It’s been a very big loss for us as youth and for all the people in Cambodia,” he said. “We lost a person who never feared to speak the truth.”
A lot has changed in Cambodia since the murder of Kem Ley, who was gunned down on July 10, 2016 by a man who said he owed him money. New laws have been implemented that restrict political activities — the country’s largest opposition party, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), has been dissolved and its president is under house arrest.
Kem Ley’s murderer, a man named Oeut Ang, was caught and sentenced to life in prison, but that hasn’t stopped fear from spreading. Many Cambodians believe he was killed because he became too popular and too outspoken. The fear runs so deep that many Cambodian intellectuals are afraid to speak out and instead keep their thoughts to themselves.
On the third anniversary of Ley’s death, around 50 supporters and friends gathered at the minimart where he was killed. Some of them were trying to sell T-shirts with his picture on the front. Others brought flowers to show their respect.
Activists wearing T-shirts with Kem Ley’s picture on them are forced to leave the minimart where he was shot dead or to cover up his image. (Photo by Yon Sineat)
Seven Kem Ley supporters were arrested the day before, and on, the anniversary. A few days later two of them, Kong Raya and Soung Neak Pon, were charged with incitement to commit a crime. In Kong Raya’s case he was arrested because he advertised on his Facebook page that he was selling T-shirts showing an image of Kem Ley and a slogan in Khmer, saying “If you do nothing, you will be victimized. It’s just not your turn yet.”
Neak Pon was arrested on the day of the anniversary and accused of distributing leaflets. He also wore a T-shirt with Kem Ley’s photo on it, with the message “Stop killing people outside the justice system.” If found guilty of incitement, both men could be jailed for between six months and two years and receive a fine of between 1 million riel (US$245) and 4 million riel.
In the minimart, Preap Kol drank coffee at the very same table that Kem Ley was sitting at when he was killed. The director of the anti-corruption NGO Transparency International Cambodia wanted to leave flowers on the table, to pay respect to the slain commentator, but a police officer standing over him didn’t allow it.
“There’s no more space for freedom in this country,” Preap Kol told journalists who gathered around him. “I don’t think we appreciate freedom enough. I’ve seen restriction on activities. Here we’re not even allowed to put flowers on a table.”
Yan Moun, a member of the Grassroots Democratic Party (GDP), which was co-founded by Kem Ley, said that since his death, democracy in Cambodia “has moved backwards.”
“We now have a serious lack of freedom of expression,” he said.
Yan Moun said the murder has frightened others who would like to share their knowledge in order to develop the impoverished nation, just as Kem Ley did for many years in his radio and newspaper interviews.
He mentioned Kim Sok, another commentator who dared to speak out against Cambodia’s government. In 2017 Kim Sok was sent to prison for 18 months on charges of incitement and defamation. A few weeks after his release in August 2018 the threats against him and his family were so serious that he fled to Finland.
“Kim Sok wasn’t scared to criticize the government, but he couldn’t stay for security reasons. He now criticizes the government from afar,” Yan Moun said.
Soung Neak Poun a youth activist is arrested on the anniversary of Kim Ley’s murder with police accusing him of incitement to commit a crime. (Photo by Yon Sineat)
Some in Cambodia see Kim Sok as the only person who could fill the void that Kim Ley left behind. Speaking to ucanews.com from Finland, Kim Sok said it’s impossible to compare them because Kem Ley had a lot more experience and many more skills.
“I never think that I can compare myself with him. He was a very talented and well-informed person,” said Kim Sok. “Not everyone can be like him. He was born with a gift, he could mobilize people and lead a social movement for positive change.”
Kim Sok believes Cambodia lost a man who would do anything for the sake of democracy in the country.
“What I want to do is continue Kem Ley’s mission and activities, because right now we are in a terrible situation,” he said.
“Our people need someone to take Kem Ley’s role. After his death, no one stepped in to take over, so I did it even though I don’t have the same talent and knowledge as he did.
“But I’m brave enough to do it because even without him, his mission for freedom and democracy continues, which means that communism and dictatorship have failed.”
Back at the minimart in downtown Phnom Penh, Heng Keoum Hong agreed with Sok. He also pointed to Kem Ley’s great talents, including his unique ability to explain complicated issues to a wide audience in a way that everybody could understand. “Even illiterate people understood him easily,” he recalled. “That’s why people loved to listen to him on talk shows and on the radio.”
Keoum Hong thinks a few people in Cambodia have the same knowledge as Kem Ley, but that none of them is able to use it. “They know a lot, but they are afraid to speak because they are not as brave as Dr. Kem Ley,” he asserted. “He was a role model who inspired a young generation to love our country and to contribute knowledge to help our country move forward.”
Additional reporting by Ate Hoekstra.