Kem Ley anniversary an epic PR fail for Cambodian government (video)

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The third anniversary of the murder of Cambodian political commentator Kem Lay couldn’t have been a worse public relations disaster for the Cambodian government if planned.

As Cambodian youth and supporters of the dead political analyst gathered at the site of his murder last week, a large contingent of police and security forces swooped in.

Seven people were arrested while attempting to show their respects for the popular analyst, with two later charged with ‘incitement to commit crimes’ and placed in what Cambodia calls pre-trial detention (remanded in custody).

The crime? Selling ‘political T-shirts’ and politicising the anniversary of Mr Ley’s death.

The paranoic siege mentality of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) also saw planned Buddhist ceremonies to mark the occasion outside of the capital cancelled or disrupted.

Call for promised inquiry repeated

Mourners gather by the roadside as the funeral procession of Kem Ley passes in 2016
Mourners gather by the roadside as the funeral procession of Kem Ley passes in 2016 Licadho

The security crack-down last Wednesday (July 10) came one day after 24 nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) issued a joint statement renewing calls for the Cambodian government to establish an independent and impartial Commission of Inquiry into Mr Ley’s killing.

“It has been three years since significant gaps were highlighted in the investigation and trial of Kem Ley’s case, which need to be remedied through an independent, impartial and effective investigation”,  said Frederick Rawski, International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) director for Asia and the Pacific.

In 2017 a similar submission to Cambodia deputy prime minister Sar Kheng was was jointly signed by 164 organisations.

On July 10, 2016 a lone individual walked into the convenience store at the Caltex petrol station where Mr Ley was having his morning cup of coffee and calmly shot him twice in the head before fleeing.

The shooter, later identified as former soldier Oeuth Ang (which means ‘meet to kill’), was captured within minutes and subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment. He says he shot Mr Ley over a $3,000 debt, a claim that is not believed by many, primarily due to no evidence existing that the two had ever met.

In the days before his death Mr Ley had been interviewed by local and international media following the publishing of an in-depth report by Global Witness into the wealth and business dealings of the ruling Hun family. The report valued the family’s wealth at more than $200 million, in a country where the minimum wage for a garment sector worker at the time was $140 per month.

Follwoing the shooting Prime Minister Hun said on his Facebook page ‘I condemn this brutal act’,  and ordered authorities to investigate the murder and crackdown on the prevalence of guns and explosives in Cambodian society. An order that would appear to have been ignored.

Fast forward three years and instead of projecting an image of inclusiveness and diversity, the world instead saw disturbing videos, photos, and tweets of a heavy-handed response normally associated with oppressive authoritative regimes.

Worst possible timing

It couldn’t have happened at a worse time. A European Union (EU) fact-finding delegation is currently in Cambodia assessing whether the country will lose its preferential access to the EU market under the Everything but Arms (EBA) trade preference arrangement due to its human rights record.

In 2018 some $5.43 billion (€4.8 billion) worth of textiles, footwear and agricultural products, and bicycles exported by Cambodia to the EU were eligible for EBA concessions.

The footwear and garment industries are Cambodia’s largest, employing some 800,000 people and account for about 70 per cent of total exports. Any loss of concessions would see the price of Cambodian products in the EU soar.

Meanwhile, in the US the privately sponsored ‘HR 526 Cambodia Democracy Act’ is winding its way through the US House of Representatives. If passed it will allow the US government to impose sanctions on Cambodian officials responsible for undermining democracy and violating human rights.

Electoral clean-sweep

Well wishers and mourners gathered in front of the coffee shop last week where Kem Ley was shot dead, but were quickly dispersed by security forces
Well wishers and mourners gathered in front of the coffee shop last week where Kem Ley was shot dead, but were quickly dispersed by security forces Kem Ley researcher official

In an election that has been widely criticised, the CPP last year won all 125 seats in the Cambodia Parliament with a reported 77.5 per cent of the vote, in addition to 58 of 62 seats in the Senate. In the lead-up to the election Prime Minister Hun warned of civil war if the CPP should lose power, a comment he has repeated many times since, the most recent being earlier this month.

The win, which saw Mr Hun continue his more than three-decade rule as Prime Minister, followed the arrest in September 2017 of Kem Sokha, head of what at the time was Cambodia’s largest opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), on charges of treason stemming from a video of a 2013 speech.

Mr Sokha remains confined to his home after being released from pre-trial detention due to ill health. In November 2017 the Cambodia Supreme Court deregistered the CNRP.

Subsequent to these events many CNRP officials and all of its former ministers have fled abroad claiming fear for their personal safety.

In a tightly worded statement the US Embassy, Phnom Penh, said: ‘The United States is concerned by the Cambodian government’s ongoing practice of using baseless, politically-motivated charges to harass its citizens, including the recent arrests of several people peacefully remembering the life of Kem Ley. All Cambodians should be able to exercise their rights to express their views freely and assemble peacefully.

‘We have consistently urged the Cambodian government to remove undue political restrictions on all persons in Cambodia, release those prisoners who have been arbitrarily or unlawfully detained, and uphold human rights and fundamental freedoms’, the statement said.

CPP spokesperson Sok Eysan labelled the US statement as “biased, and was quoted in local media as denying there are restrictions on personal freedoms of expression, provided people don’t break the law.

The journey of Kem Ley’s life

ខ្សែជីវិតលោក កែម ឡី​ – KEM LEY: His Life’s Journey
Video: cchrcambodia

An activist, physician, and political commentator, Mr Ley was born on October 19, 1970 in Takeo province and raised by a single mother in a poor family.

Despite the odds he finished his medical studies in 1992 before going on to complete a master’s degree in research studies at Chulalongkorn University, Thailand, in 1997. In 2008, he received his PhD from Malaya University, Malaysia.

To commemorate the life, ambitions and achievements of Mr Ley the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) have published the video at the right.

Paying Mr Ley perhaps the highest compliment possible for a political commentator, life-long friend Ou Virak said, “the most attractive thing was he could use examples that people could easily understand”. If only all politicians did the same.


Videos Social Breaking News-SBN



  • Court upholds Kem Ley killer’s ‘unfair’ conviction (The Phnom Penh Post)
  • Cambodian police arrest 7 marking death of government critic (CityNews1130)
  • Friends to mark day of Kem Ley’s murder (Khmer Times)
  • Cambodia’s adoption of Universal Periodic Review on Human Rights (ifex)
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