Four years to the day after the murder of Cambodian social activist Dr Kem Ley, his death is still shrouded in mystery.
The 46-year-old was a political commentator and civil society advocate before his passing and left behind his wife, Bou Rachana, and five children. A trained physician, Kem Ley spent much of his life traveling through Cambodia researching social and political issues and was a prolific media and radio guest, appearing frequently on Radio Free Asia. Though he was a co-founder of the Grassroots Democratic Party and worked in the political system at various points in his career, he never held office nor campaigned to do so.
Year after year, the Phnom Penh gas station where Kem Ley was gunned down by a man who later identified himself to police as Chuob Somlab, a name that means “Meet Kill” in Khmer, has become a site of pilgrimage for those who hold his memory close. The recurring scene is an echo of the spontaneous procession that gathered after the killing to escort the body of the fallen doctor back to his family home in Takeo province, south of the capital city, and later again congregated there in a funerary scene estimated to have gathered some two million people.
Chak Sopheap, head of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), will be one of those visitors this year to make the journey back to Takeo to pay their respects. Sopheap first met Kem Ley in 2012 when he joined the board of her organisation. She described the slain advocate as a “true man of the people” who took seriously all those who wished to share their perspective and promoted leadership among women and young people, especially at CCHR.
“Dr. Kem Ley was unique as not only was he a fiercely passionate and intelligent political commentator, he was unshaking in his commitment to the truth,” Sopheap wrote ahead of the anniversary in an email to the Globe. “He did not let fear or bias sway him, and criticized both the main parties as necessary when he felt it was merited.”
His legacy has inspired a similar commitment in those who would honour his memory.
In the days ahead of the anniversary this week, a gathering of supporters, including a group of monks in saffron robes, were held back by police on 8 July during a first attempt to visit the Caltex gas station where Kem Ley lost his life. Police turned away some 30 people who arrived for a memorial and detained a young man apparently for the unspoken crime of wearing a shirt emblazoned with Kem Ley’s face and a call for speech rights. The man became an unintentional symbol of resistance after his photo circulated on social media.
Some who passed the image along reflected that it was a suitable tribute to Kem Ley’s style as a bold, nonpartisan commentator.
Dr Meas Nee, a long-time political analyst in Cambodia, knew that demeanour well. True to form, he described it in the context of Cambodian political history.
“When you look at how governments took power in Cambodia over the past, let’s say, 30 or 40 years, it mainly came through violence – gunshots, bloodshed,” Meas Nee said. “For these kinds of regimes, we don’t expect that the leadership of the country would enjoy being criticised. And this is why Kem Ley’s role was a rare kind, we can even say he was a rare species, to speak in a straightforward way about what was going on.”
“In the past, some Cambodian intellectuals and social mobilisers did the same, but they got killed before societal change happened. This is what happened to Kem Ley … to say something real, to tell the truth, it’s very dangerous.”
The two men had been drawn together around 2013, in the political turbulence of a Phnom Penh being drawn into a nearly year-long period of flaring protests in the wake of the hotly contested general election that year.
Not long after, they began to coordinate their appearances in media, later working in tandem on Cambodian political and social research.
Meas Nee said he’d had an appointment to meet his friend and colleague on the fateful date of 10 July, 2016, but had to cancel due to a schedule mixup. Just three days earlier, the two had appeared together on a Radio Free Asia (RFA) programme hosted that day by reporter Yeang Sothearin. The analysts discussed with Sothearin a recently published report from anti-corruption organisation Global Witness that outlined the reach and magnitude of wealth held by Prime Minister Hun Sen and his family, who were described as having used their political power to amass a fortune.
Sothearin had first met Kem Ley in 2014. The advocate’s political independence and “scientific” approach to social research had left an impression on the reporter.
In the days leading up to his death, it is said that Dr. Kem Ley knew his life was in danger
“He criticised all sides as long as they did something wrong,” Sothearin said. “He dared to say the facts.”
The then-RFA reporter would soon himself face the reproach of the state. Just ahead of the 2017 political crackdown that also saw the Supreme-Court-ordered dissolution of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), Sothearin’s outlet was forced to close. He and his colleague Uong Chhin were later arrested, accused of espionage and forced into a revolving door of investigations and court appearances.
But as he looked back to his last interview with Kem Ley, Sothearin said that particular day of recording was nothing out of the ordinary.
“At the time, I didn’t think it was dangerous, I felt normal after the show,” the former news reporter said. He now works at Globe sister publication, Focus – Ready for Tomorrow.
“I can’t say that was why he was killed, but it was something others would be afraid to speak about.”
International human rights groups have demanded a full account of the events that preceded the murder of Kem Ley at the hands of the so-called Chuob Somlab, a man whose false identity and convoluted motive of anger over an unpaid debt were dismissed entirely by his own wife and mother. The women identified Mr Somlab as Oeuth Ang, a forest ranger and soldier. In 2017, a judge found Ang guilty for the murder of Kem Ley and sentenced him to life in prison.
Chak Sopheap said word of the coming assassination may have gotten to Kem Ley ahead of time, but it wasn’t enough to prevent him from continuing his work.
“In the days leading up to his death, it is said that Dr. Kem Ley knew his life was in danger,” Sopheap said, “yet still he spoke out against the corruption and injustice that was continuing to impact the lives of ordinary Cambodians.”
‘He sacrificed his life’
Much of Kem Ley’s work was on the airwaves, commenting on radio for Khmer listeners, or online on his popular social media channels. But it was the conversations he had with people of all walks of life that made the deepest impression on his friends and colleagues.
“His feet were always on the ground, with the people,” said Meas Nee of his friend. “So he understood in-depth about what was going on.”
Yang Saing Koma, a long-time agronomist and current chairman of the Grassroots Democratic Party, an organisation he co-founded with Kem Ley, Yeng Vireak and Sam Inn, had a similar measure of the activist. He described his slain friend as a “down to earth” communicator who got along easily with those he met.
“He liked to talk and he knew how to simplify the language to be understood,” Yang Saing explained. “He always had time – time to talk, time to interact. From the very simple people to the high-ranking, whoever.”
Yang Saing had met Kem Ley around 2006 when the doctor was drawn to the work of the farmer in rural Cambodia. The two began working together about six years after, first in human development and later in policy advisor roles for the CNRP.
Yang Saing said he and Kem Ley had worked well together – but not with the CNRP.
“We were of the same opinion that political parties should compete with policy, not just fighting each other like in the old politics,” Yang Saing said.
By 2015, they founded the Grassroots Democratic Party they hoped would break the mould of Cambodian politics. But their vision didn’t have long to grow.
The death of Kem Ley marked a turning point for the lives of many he’d touched. Before the assassination, Meas Nee said he’d intended to leave behind the political world entirely to go full-time into farming. He’s still out on his farm in Battambang, where birdsong could be heard in the background of a telephone call, but he said the killing of his friend otherwise changed his mind. He still carries out research and makes regular political commentary, despite getting threats against his safety.
Sothearin, the reporter, has fought his own battle in the Cambodian courts. But even though he too has been pulled from the airwaves, he didn’t hesitate to speak at length about Kem Ley and what the activist’s legacy means to him today.
“He sacrificed his life for this country,” Sothearin said. “We learned courage from him. He had the courage to do things that many people want to do but do not dare because they are afraid of death, afraid of being killed. But he didn’t, and he did it for the benefit of the public.”