Police in Cambodia’s Takeo province Friday set up roadblocks to stop a group of about 100 activists from the capital Phnom Penh from joining in ceremonies commemorating the life of political commentator and social activist Kem Ley on the fourth anniversary of his murder.
Kem Ley was shot to death in broad daylight on July 10, 2016 while having a morning coffee at a Caltex gas station mini market, days after publicly criticizing 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.
Police stopped members of the Independent Democracy of Informal Economic Association (IDEA) and the Cambodian Youth Network, citing COVID-19 concerns and conducting driver’s license checks.
“I am very sad. As a citizen, I want to pay gratitude to the late Kem Ley, but the police stopped us,” Vorn Pao, president of IDEA, told RFA’s Khmer Service.
He said that although the police stopped his group of activists, they did not actually check them for COVID-19. They did not allow some in the group to continue their journey, instead taking them to a police station for questioning about the driver’s licenses.
Sar Mory, the Cambodian Youth Network’s program director, told RFA police followed him from the capital and took pictures of his license plate number, finally stopping his bus, which was carrying 20 passengers. The youths then walked six kms (3.7 mile) before catching a ride with friends.
All of the supporters from both groups eventually made it to the ceremony, but most were late, arriving at different times because of the delays.
“The actions of the police are a restriction against our freedom as citizens to take part in a religious ceremony. We only wanted to express our gratitude and pay our respects to the late Kem Ley,” said Sar Mory.
Stopping the supporters to check driver’s licenses is illegal according to Soeung Sen Karuna, the spokesman for the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC), a local rights organization.
He told RFA that the police action aimed simply to restrict the freedom of people wanting to participate in the ceremonies.
Police deny wrongdoing
National Police Spokesman Chhay Kim Khoeun told RFA that the Takeo police told him that the activists were travelling in an overloaded bus that was further weighed down by heavy luggage.
He said that police have the right to check people and stop them from using the ceremony as a political event to protect security.
“Police have the right to stop them from joining the ceremony because the family [of Kem Ley] filed a complaint asking us to maintain order,” said Chhay Kim Khoeun
“People are taking advantage of the event for political reasons, with some disturbing the solemn event to broadcast it live [on Facebook],” he said.
The spokesman said that the police had no issues with the event itself.
Vorn Pao rejected Chhay Kim Khoeuns assertion that the police did not break any laws, Kem Ley’s sister said the family had no complaints about visitors.
Family welcomed supporters
Kem Ley’s family was aware that supporters wanted to join the ceremony and they did not ask police to prevent them from joining, according to Kem Ley’s sister, Kem Thavry.
She told RFA that police had Kem Ley’s mother sign a statement, but her mother did not know what it said.
“The statement was already written. My mother only thumbprinted over her name,” she said.
Meanwhile in Stung Treng province, police stopped 30 monks and villagers from organizing their own ceremony to commemorate Kem Ley.
Their ceremony was interrupted because local authorities and a provincial prosecutor came to the event to stop it, according to the Venerable Bo Beth.
He told RFA that youths taking part in their event were removed and not allowed to stay at the event through the night.
“[The authorities] are afraid of Kem Ley’s shadow. They violated people’s freedom,” said Bo Beth.
“Before I organized the event, I read the constitution and laws about demonstrations. I didn’t see any law that prevents us from organizing a Buddhist ceremony to commemorate the life of someone like Dr. Kem Ley, who is still in our hearts,” said the monk.
Widow ‘still suffering’
Kem Ley’s widow, Bou Rachna told RFA she is still suffering four years after her husband’s death.
“I try to forget my suffering by spending my time taking care of my children. I lie to myself that Kem Ley is still working on his mission and will return home one day,” she said from Australia on an RFA call-in show Friday.
Bou Rachna said she welcomed a new initiative to end impunity in Cambodia launched Friday by the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party and asserted the man currently serving time for the crime is not really the killer of her husband.
“The govt. has the duty to find the real killers and prosecute them,” she said.
Authorities charged a former soldier named Oeuth Ang with Kem Ley’s murder and sentenced him to life in prison in March 2017. In May last year, court authorities rejected his appeal and upheld his sentence, but many in Cambodia do not believe the government’s story that Kem Ley was killed by the man over a debt.
“Cambodia has imprisoned a scapegoat while allowing the masterminds to remain free, so it's clear the domestic investigation has failed and an independent, international effort must step in to ensure accountability,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch.
Acting CNRP President Sam Rainsy told RFA that they chose the anniversary of Kem Ley’s death to launch their new campaign.
“More people are falling as victims. The last one was Kem Ley. This is our final campaign to end impunity,” he told RFA.
“We have a massive number of supporters around the world. And we will make sure that victims receive justice very soon,” said Sam Rainsy.
He added that the party would provide travel expenses and security in a third country for witnesses, should they come forward.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.