By André Capretti
On Sunday morning, Cambodia lost one of its most beloved sons. Kem Ley was a prominent independent political analyst, a renowned intellectual, an advocate for democratic reform, and an ardent critic of the government. Most importantly, he was a husband, a brother, a son, and a father to four boys, with a fifth child on the way.
The news of his death was made more painful by its senselessness and the callous manner in which it occurred. Ley was just about to have his morning coffee at a gas station café, when he was executed by a gunman at point blank range.
The reaction of the Cambodian public illustrates how respected and revered Kim Ley was by his countrymen and countrywomen. Thousands of Cambodians gathered in a procession, marching to a pagoda on the other side of town, to lay his body to rest. Since then, his funeral was attended by thousands of people wishing to pay their last respects. While a somber moment for all, the event seemed to bring many Cambodians closer together, unified in their mourning and sorrow.
Today was the tenth edition of the Black Monday campaign. After more than 20 arrests in the past 9 weeks, no protesters were detained today, and yet the day stood out for being much darker than any other Black Monday.
In the days, weeks and months to come, much will be made about the assassin: his identity, his connection to Ley, his motives, etc. Luckily, the suspect was apprehended as he fled the scene. And yet, in the messy aftermath there appears to be little reason to believe that justice will truly be served in this case. Ley’s body had barely turned cold before supporters of both major political parties began blaming the other for his death.
Many people pointed the finger at the ruling party, whose track record of political assassinations and use of scapegoats makes it a prime suspect. While few will question that the man captured by police was the one who pulled the trigger, it remains to be seen whether he was truly the mastermind behind this heinous crime.
One important piece of the puzzle would appear to be an interview that Ley gave to Radio Free Asia just a few days ago, about a groundbreaking report released by London-based international organization Global Witness. The report caused shockwaves across Cambodia, as it detailed the extraordinary levels of wealth held by Prime Minister Hun Sen, his children and his extended family. In a country where nearly 40% of Cambodians still live below or close to the poverty line, the report revealed that the ruling family had substantial control over 114 local companies in 20 different economic sectors, and an estimated net worth of at least 200 million dollars. The report helped to highlight the extreme levels of corruption, nepotism and income inequality that plague the oligarchical Cambodian economy. It also served as a warning for Cambodians about the very real possibility of a dynastic dictatorship holding on to the reins of power for decades to come.
The reaction from Hun Sen and his family was swift and dismissive, as many of his children took to social media to deny claims of wrongdoing and accuse Global Witness of trying to ruin their reputation. Sen’s own response was nauseating, as he posted photos to his Facebook page of him toasting a drink with his children in celebration, seemingly mocking the report. Sen’s poor taste was somehow trumped by a pro-government media outlet, which posted an anonymous reader’s letter titled “Behavior Plunging Cambodians Into a Bonfire of War Because of Foreigners”, which used a doctored piece of Nazi propaganda to attack the English-language Cambodian newspapers which initially published news of the report.
In the aftermath of Kem Ley’s slaying, many of my colleagues spoke in admiration of a man who was fearless, unafraid to die if it meant standing up for what he believed in. Others remembered a man who was outspoken, even in the face of increasing persecution against government critics. It remains to be seen what kind of impact Ley’s death will have on the state of freedom of speech in Cambodia. Many expect it to serve as a chilling reminder of the lengths that the ruling party is willing to take to consolidate its power and eliminate all voices of dissent.
I wish I could end this blog post on a happy note, but there’s really no point sugar coating it. The prognosis appears grim for Cambodia, a country in a deep state of crisis, where the space for civil society keeps shrinking, and human rights are at the bottom of the government’s list of priorities.
Looking ahead at my last few weeks in the country I have four dates highlighted on my agenda. Two are trial dates, one marks a court summons and the fourth the announcement of a verdict. All four cases are political. At this point it’s hard to be optimistic that justice will prevail, when all four outcomes seem clearly pre-determined.
For now, I’m just hoping for a miracle.