Police in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh on Wednesday dispersed a group of supporters marking the anniversary of the murder of political commentator and social activist Kem Ley at the site where he was gunned down four years ago.
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.
On Wednesday, activists and monks gathered at the Caltex station to hold a Buddhist ceremony in his honor when police arrived and scuffled with those in attendance, briefly detaining at least one young man, a campaigner with environmental watchdog Mother Nature named Thun Rotha told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“Police were pushing us away from the minimart and threatening to arrest us, claiming that we hadn’t requested permission to gather and were trespassing,” he said. “The police action violated our freedom as Cambodians.”
Sar Mory, program director of the Cambodian Youth Network (CYN), who monitored the gathering, said police were wrong to disperse nonviolent supporters honoring the fallen commentator.
“This was a restriction on a peaceful gathering—the police didn’t allow them to pay their respects to the late Kem Ley,” he said.
After supporters were dispersed from the minimart, they gathered on a nearby street to hold the Buddhist ceremony and then walked to neighboring Takeo province, where Kem Ley’s body was laid to rest in an unfinished stupa. The activists plan to hold a separate ceremony at Kem Ley’s house on Friday.
A monk who walked from Phnom Penh to Takeo named Koeurt Saray said police continued to monitor supporters as they traveled to the stupa.
“We commemorate Kem Ley because [his murder] is a historic event and doing so will strengthen the national spirit,” he said.
During the fray at the Caltex station, police had arrested a young man named Khan Chanthorn who was wearing a T-shirt bearing Kem Ley’s portrait and a slogan which read: “Wipe your tears and continue your journey.”
Khan Chanthorn told RFA that he had been arrested for wearing the shirt but was released from the local station after being questioned and signing a document which said he would not take part in the memorial service for Kem Ley.
“I told the authorities I volunteered to come [today] because I believed in Kem Ley,” he said.
Khan Chanthorn said that despite signing the document, “I will continue to participate in the commemoration ceremony going forward.”
RFA was unable to reach Phnom Penh Municipal Governor Khuong Sreng for comment on Wednesday.
‘Its’ a coverup’
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.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of New York-based Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, called Oeuth Ang a “scapegoat,” and questioned why several aspects of the case had not been investigated further, including closed camera footage that appeared to show the convicted killer “running along with the encouragement of the police who were chasing him.”
“The whole thing stinks—it’s a coverup,” he said. “It’s quite clearly a political killing because Dr. Kem Ley dared question the illicit wealth of Hun Sen and his family.”
Robertson said that past statements by Hun Sen that he was committed to finding Kem Ley’s killer were only a reaction to an outpouring of anger in Cambodia over the commentator’s death.
“I think if he was looking for the killers, he would find the masterminds in his own political circle,” he said.
“I think that it is quite clear that there is some high-level government involvement in this case and that’s why I’m saying that they don’t want to investigate, because if they did, they’d be arresting themselves,” he added.
“This was a killing of a very popular man who was forming a grassroots movement based on human rights and community development. Someone who had a vision and had a growing following. He was going to be a political threat to [Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party] CPP and so they eliminated him.”
Sam Rainsy, acting president of the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), told RFA that Kem Ley’s murder demonstrates the need for a campaign to end impunity in the country.
“We are working on getting an independent court at the national and international level to conduct an investigation into the murder and bring its perpetrators to justice,” he said, speaking from self-imposed exile in Paris, where he has lived since 2015 to avoid a slew of what he says are politically motivated charges and convictions.
In response to the comments, Ministry of Justice spokesman Chhin Malin told RFA that “justice has already been served” for Kem Ley, according to Cambodian law, and said the government can’t reopen a case “based on the emotions of the people.”
He dismissed claims that the case was not resolved properly, suggesting that the CNRP and Human Rights Watch sought to “exploit Kem Ley’s murder” as a way to stoke public anger against the government.
National Police spokesman Chhay Kim Khoeun told RFA that authorities had ended their investigation into Kem Ley’s murder because of Oueth Ang’s conviction, although he said police would honor any court-ordered warrant to question new suspects.
“We are judicial police, so if there is no warrant, we can’t do anything,” he said.
Meanwhile, Kem Ley’s mother Phok Se said that pursuing justice for her son had put her family members at risk and cost them nearly all of their savings.
“[Kem Ley’s brothers] want justice but they have had to stay quiet,” she said. “We want security, and we barely have enough money to survive.”
“My sorrow has not faded—now I am getting older, but my son is not with me.”
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