Cambodians held services in the capital Phnom Penh and elsewhere in the country on Monday marking the first anniversary of the death of prominent government critic and scholar Kem Ley, while the United States embassy and rights groups called for a full and impartial reinvestigation of his murder.
Kem Ley was gunned down in broad daylight on July 10, 2016, when he stopped for coffee in a Star Mart convenience store beside a Caltex gas station in Phnom Penh.
Days before he was murdered, he had discussed on an RFA Khmer Service call-in show a report by London-based group Global Witness detailing the extent of the wealth of the family of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for more than 32 years.
Former soldier Oeuth Ang—who calls himself Chuob Samlab, a Khmer name meaning “meet to kill”—confessed to shooting Kem Ley over a U.S. $3,000 debt. Though he was sentenced to life in prison in March for the crime, it is widely believed that others were involved in the pundit’s slaying.
Supporters of Kem Ley, who frequently criticized the government of strongman Hun Sen, held two ceremonies in the capital to commemorate his devotion to the nation, one at the Caltex Bokor traffic stop where he was shot and another in the Wat Chas Buddhist pagoda.
More than 30 young people, representatives from trade unions and civil society groups, and two Buddhist monks placed garlands around a photo of Kem Ley at the Caltex Star Mart store at the Bokor traffic stop under the watchful eyes of authorities.
Theng Savoeun, secretary-general of the Cambodian Farmers Community Alliance, said during the event that social workers in Cambodia continue to face imprisonment and murder, which has instilled fear among youths who broach societal issues.
“In a time of such fear, I want to encourage Cambodian citizens and youths to dare to speak the truth rather than protect themselves, per Kem Ley’s advice,” he said. “What he said was that … when our citizens are well aware of the truth, the system of respect for human rights and democracy in Cambodia will improve.”
Luon Savath, known as the “multimedia monk,” told the small crowd that everything Kem Ley had said about social issues was always backed by concrete evidence and information.
“He said there was wide-scale forest destruction [based on] what he had analyzed and what we have all seen and heard,” the monk said. “We see that our forests are diminishing.”
Kem Lay “did not lie, incite, or cheat,” Luon Savath said. “The key principles that he had were integrity, values, morality, and fairness in accordance with democracy.”
At Wat Dhammacakkaram, also known as Wat Chas, Buth Buntinh, founder of the independent monk network for social justice, and 11 other Buddhist monks held a ceremony to recite Buddhist scriptures for Kem Ley’s soul to rest in peace.
Buth Buntinh said the monks were holding the ceremony on a small scale so people could join a larger one in southwestern Cambodia’s Takeo province where Kem Ley’s body was laid to rest.
Takeo province remembers
In Takeo province, Yeng Virak, president of the Grassroots Democracy Party, said he considered Kem Ley as the great founder of his party and pledged to push further to seek justice for him.
“We believe that if we get support from the citizens we can win to lead the government in the future,” he said. “Then we will be able to seek justice for Kem Ley and his family.”
“We have all known that Kem Ley dared to devote his life to the cause of social justice,” he said.
“He yearned for social justice for Cambodian citizens and for the country as a whole,” Yeng Virak said. “So if we have chance to lead the government, we will guarantee that Cambodia will have social justice.”
When we are able to provide social justice for Cambodian citizens, then we can provide justice for Kem Ley,” he said.
Kem Ley’s younger brother, Kem Rithysak, said that as long as there are no changes to the present judicial system, his family will never receive justice for Kem Ley.
Phok Se, Kem Ley’s 78-year-old mother who lives Ang Takob village, Leay Bo commune of Tram Kak district in Takeo province, said she takes care of her son’s tomb and a statue of him, and talks to villagers and her son’s supporters from near and far.
Oeuth Ang’s mother, Ek Tab, who lives in a village in the Angkor Chum district of northwestern Cambodia’s Siem Reap province, said she has moved from place to place since her son’s conviction, fearing for her safety
Kem Ley’s widow Bou Rachana, who is living Bangkok with the couple’s five children awaiting the granting of refugee status so they can settle in a third country, told RFA’s Khmer Service on Sunday that she gave some food to Buddhist monks as an offering to commemorate the anniversary of her husband’s murder.
Bou Rachana also called on the courts to reinvestigate Kem Ley’s murder.
“I cannot accept the fact that Chuob Samlab [the alias of the soldier who killed Kem Ley] is my husband’s killer,” she said. I cannot accept that the court has convicted him and sentenced him to life imprisonment or anything else, because not only myself, but also all citizens both inside and outside the country, do not trust the courts in Cambodia—that they are independent [of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party].”
Banteay Meanchey procession
More than 200 young people in northwestern Cambodia’s Banteay Meanchey province held a tree planting ceremony on Sunday and a Buddhist “rainy season candles” procession to commemorate Kem Ley’s death in the vicinity of Wat Tuol Preah Pnov pagoda near Thai border in O Chrov district.
“As a youth, I respect [Kem Ley’s] heroism and patriotism for the nation,” said Sy Va, a youth leader from the town of Poipet. “He dared to sacrifice his life for the sake of protecting our territorial integrity. What we can never forget is his daring to speak the truth, his desire for the country to obtain freedom. Up to the day that he lost his life, he still worked for the nation. We can never forget him!”
Sum Chankear, the Banteay Meanchey province coordinator for the domestic rights group Adhoc, said the ceremony and procession had raised awareness of Kem Ley’s legacy among young people.
“It is also a sign that Kem Ley’s ideas will always rest in Cambodian hearts for application in the future,” he said.
Thousands of Cambodian migrant laborers workers in Thailand’s Chonburi province held ceremonies at a number of Thai pagodas to commemorate Kem Ley’s death.
The United States and rights groups around the globe called for a full accounting of Kem Ley’s murder on the first anniversary of his death.
“We express our renewed condolences to Kem Ley’s family, who are still waiting and hoping for a full accounting of this senseless and cowardly act,” said a Facebook post by the U.S. embassy in Phnom Penh on Monday.
Rights groups raise concern
More than 160 organizations worldwide, including London-based Amnesty International, raised concern about an apparent lack of progress in investigating the crime and called for a commission of inquiry into the killing.
“In light of the inadequacy of the investigation, the Royal Government of Cambodia is urged to establish an independent and impartial Commission of Inquiry, in line with international standards, to continue the investigation,” said a statement issued by Amnesty International.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of New York-based Human Rights Watch, said prosecutors had failed to conduct a thorough investigation of the case and used Oeuth Ang as a “scapegoat.”
"Kem Ley’s murder in broad daylight in central Phnom Penh a year ago, shortly after publicly criticizing the unusual wealth of Prime Minister Hun Sen and his family, was all about silencing a prominent critic and reiterating that speaking about such sensitive topics carries a deadly risk,” he said.
“No one believes the story concocted by convicted killer Oeuth Ang, not even his wife and family, but in a justice system captured by the ruling CPP party such stories don't require an iota of credibility for a conviction,” Robertson said.
“Prosecutors have not even gone through the motions to investigate alleged accomplices mentioned by Oeuth Ang, such as the person he says introduced him to Kem Ley, or the man who he claims sold him the gun used to commit the murder,” he said
“Oueth Ang is at best a scapegoat for others who are still at large,” he said.
Reported by Leng Maly, Vanndeth Van, Chandara Yang, and Hour Hum for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.