Cambodian activists remember 2016 shooting of leading government critic

Kem Ley was gunned down at a gas station after publicly criticizing then-Prime Minister Hun Sen.
By RFA Khmer
Cambodian activists remember 2016 shooting of leading government critic Monks, civil society officials and political party officials mark the eight-year anniversary of Kem Ley’s killing at a Phnom Penh gas station on July 10, 2024.
(Citizen photo)

The shocking killing of prominent political commentator Kem Ley was remembered by citizens and civil society activists who gathered on Wednesday at the same Phnom Penh gas station where he was shot eight years ago.

About 150 people held banners splattered with red paint and laid wreaths and flowers in front of the gas station’s minimarket. Some of the banners called for the government to release all Cambodian prisoners of conscience who have been imprisoned for criticizing the government. 

Several dozen people marched from a high school to the gas station before the event.

“Justice for those who tell the truth, justice for Dr. Kem Ley, justice for environmental activists, we demand the release of all activists who speak the truth,” the demonstrators shouted.

Kem Ley was fatally shot in 2016 while having a morning coffee at the gas station, days after publicly criticizing then-Prime Minister Hun Sen and his family for abuse of power and unexplained wealth. 

A trained physician who also held a doctorate, he was 45 and left behind four children and a pregnant widow.

ENG_KHM_KEM LAY_07102024.04.jpg
Tens of thousands of people attend a funeral procession to carry the body of Kem Ley, an anti-government figure and the head of a grassroots advocacy group, “Khmer for Khmer” who was shot dead on July 10, to his hometown, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, July 24, 2016. (Samrang Pring/Reuters)

Authorities charged a former soldier named Oeuth Ang and sentenced him to life in prison in 2017. Court authorities rejected an appeal and upheld his sentence in 2019, but many in Cambodia do not believe his assertion that he killed Kem Ley over a US$3,000 debt.

The killing was followed by a Supreme Court decision to ban Cambodia’s leading opposition party ahead of national elections. Since then, all independent media outlets have been forced to close and most of the country’s political opposition has been sidelined through the courts or through intimidation.

An example for younger activists

Wednesday’s Kem Lay anniversary comes a week after 10 environmental activists were convicted of incitement and sentenced to between six and eight years in prison. 

Activists from the Mother Nature group, which had worked to expose corruption and harmful infrastructure projects, were taken into custody just after the July 2 verdict.

The sister of one of the Mother Nature activists said at Wednesday’s event that younger activists have been following Kem Ley’s example.

“Some of them did not learn from him in person, but they got their theories from Dr. Kem Ley, and they also suffered injustice like Dr. Kem Ley, so we put this program together to demand justice for him,” said Long Soklin, the sister of convicted activist Long Kunthea.

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A girl stands by a portrait of Kem Ley at his grave in Ang Takok, Cambodia, Nov. 20, 2016. (Denis Gray/AP)

Rong Chhun, a prominent labor activist and an adviser to the opposition National Power Party, said government officials have been unwilling to investigate who was behind Kem Lay’s murder. 

He also called for the release of opposition leaders Kem Sokha and Thach Setha, National Power Party President Sun Chanthy, human rights activist Theary Seng and union leader Chhim Sithar – all of whom have been imprisoned or placed under house arrest in recent years.

“We think there is no benefit to Cambodia if they continue to arrest, persecute and oppress freedom,” he said. “Cambodia will only be harmed, so the government must reconsider for the benefit of the people and Cambodia.”

Translated by Yun Samean. Edited by Matt Reed.


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