Kem Ley, one of Cambodia’s most prominent and respected political commentators, was gunned down as he had his morning coffee at a gas station in Phnom Penh two years ago this week.
On Tuesday, his supporters gathered in front of the site where he was killed to pay their respects to a man widely seen as one of the leading lights of freedom of expression and social justice in the country.
They are calling for an independent inquiry into his murder. A Cambodian court sentenced a former soldier, Oeut Ang, with the killing, which he claimed was carried out over an unpaid debt.
But Ley’s supporters believe there is more to the story. Journalists have uncovered allegations of military involvement in the killing, leads which were not pursued by the court.
Moeun Tola, executive director of Central, a labor rights group, said the group had organized a small memorial to commemorate Ley’s pioneering work.
“He passed away two years ago, but the people’s love, respect, and support for him are still strong. The sentiment is the same,” he said. “In fact, there are many people organizing the ceremony and lighting incense sticks to dedicate to him; there are many people, still.”
Tola said people cared deeply for Ley because he was seen as encouraging a critical understanding of contemporary politics with ordinary Cambodians’ struggles at the heart of his thinking.
“Compared with other political elites who passed away, there is no such support,” he said. “It shows that when we do good deeds and have good values to help society, our legacy will live on after our death.”
Ley was both an outspoken critic of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, and on occasion, the country’s main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party. Days before he was gunned down he was quoted extensively talking about allegations of grand corruption on the part of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s family, published by investigative NGO Global Witness.
He had also published a series of allegorical works which lampooned corruption and abuse of power by Cambodia’s elite, which were popular among Cambodians and seen as another possible motive for his killing.
Soengsen Karuna, a local rights worker who attended the memorial, said he was still in shock over the events of that day, but added that remembering Ley was crucial so that his message lived on.
Many young Cambodians had been inspired by Ley’s life, he said. “This is happening because of the suffering and loss,” he added. “We know that he did heroic things and inspired the next generation.”
The suspected killer, Ang, was arrested shortly after the shooting as he fled the scene. He told police Ley had owed him $3,000 and gave his name as Choub Samlab, roughly translating to “Meet Kill” in Khmer. He was handed a life sentence in March 2017.
But many doubt Ang acted alone, some even question whether he pulled the trigger himself.
A joint statement from 65 NGOs issued after the verdict called into question the evidence provided by the authorities at trial.
Karuna said most of the memorial attendees do not believe Ang to be the real killer. He urged the court to conduct further investigations and to make public all the evidence to “end the public’s doubt”.
Similarly, Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions and a former member of the National Election Committee, said he thought Ang was a patsy.
“On behalf of Cambodian Confederation of Unions, I would like to call out to the authorities to open an investigation to get the real murderer and who was behind this assignation,” Chhun said.
Ly Sophanna, a court spokesman, declined to comment.
Ley’s wife, Bou Rachana, and children have since sought refuge in Australia. She wrote on Facebook on Tuesday, saying they remembered his “love, family happiness, cheerfulness”.
“We now may be silent without speaking any word, but we all know what happened to my husband. We may be quiet, but our mind understands about those cruel activities.”
“I believe that the day will come, the day when the real murderer will pay back everything he/she had done.”