Takeo provincial police and authorities blocked a group of 100 people from two nongovernmental organizations who were traveling by tuk-tuk and bus to join a ceremony to mark the fourth anniversary of the killing of prominent political and social commentator Kem Ley.
Provincial authorities and police set up barriers in Tram Kak district on July 10 at around 10:30am to block about 20 tuk-tuks and one bus that were headed to join an event for the anniversary of the murder of Kem Ley at his hometwon in Leay Bour commune.
The participants, who were members of the tuk-tuk driver-founded NGO Independent Democracy of Informal Economic Association (IDEA) and the Cambodian Youth Network disembarked from their transportation and walked the remaining 8 kilometers to Kem Ley’s home, where his family was holding a ceremony to mark four years since his death.
IDEA President Vorn Pao, said that banning people who are traveling by tuk-tuk “is a major restriction of the rights of Khmer people”.
“Where is democracy?” Pao asked. And “where are our rights to uphold religion and traditions?”
“It is unreasonable not to allow people to join in religious celebrations and to pay respect to the soul of Dr. Kem Ley,” Pao said.
Penh Sopheak, a 29-year-old tuk-tuk driver who also joined the march, said the group had been stopped suddenly by police.
“We did nothing wrong, we just drove normally on the road and police stopped us to check our body temperature [for Covid-19] and to ask us to show our driver’s license,” Spoheak said.
National Police spokesman Chhay Kim Khoeun said that police officials had carried out their duty to maintain public order along the road, and that the barricade was not related to the event being held to mark Kem Ley’s death anniversary.
“Why do they need to have a big event just to celebrate the death of Mr. Kem Ley?” he asked.
“It is a coincidence that police officers were enforcing the law to ease traffic issues there,” Kim Khoeun said. “They [police] blockade was related to traffic and keeping public order,” he said.
Provincial Governor Ouch Phea and Provincial Police Chief Sok Samnang could not be reached for comment.
Soeng Senkaruna, senior investigator at rights group Adhoc who attended the ceremony as a monitor said he was concerned that the government was again restricting the public’s right of assembly, saying it further damages Cambodia’s global reputation.
“They are limiting the rights and freedoms of people to celebrate religious events and people’s freedom of movement,” he said.
“We saw that authorities did not stop other vehicles traveling on the same road, but they stopped the group of vehicles that were heading to mark the anniversary,” Senkaruna said.
However, Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin defended the actions taken by law enforcement to maintain security, saying the participating organizations had overstepped their boundaries while exercising their right of assembly.
“They carried out their rights of assembly beyond the law because it affected other people’s rights, impacting public order,” he said.
“Religious celebrations are the people’s right, but we must know if they have ill intentions for holding the event,” Malin added.
“The question is, why do those groups have a problem? It could be that they have ulterior motives, which is why police officials banned them.”
He added that other organizations working on environmental or social issues often had similar gatherings and did not face problems with authorities.
“This is dissident groups demanding emotional justice from the government which we can’t provide to them because even though we have provided justice, they won’t be satisfied,” Malin said, referring to the arrest and murder conviction of Oeuth Ang.
Ang was sentenced in March 2017 to life imprisonment for premeditated murder and for carrying or transporting a weapon without authorization.
In April 2017, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court split a new case from the original murder trial and started a second investigation even though the killer is behind bars. A court spokesman said this week that the case, which was meant to determine who had introduced Kem Ley to Ang and how he had procured his weapon, was still in the hands of the investigating judge.
Earlier this week, a small ceremony led by 20 monks and activists planned for July 8 at the Caltex gas station cafe in Phnom Penh where Kem Ley was shot was also stopped by police and security guards.
Chak Sopheap, Executive Director at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, who attended the event on July 10, said the government must respect the rights of those who wish to honor Kem Ley.
“Each year on the anniversary of the death of Dr. Kem Ley, individuals who gather in memorial face arbitrary restrictions, harassment and intimidation by authorities,” she said in an email. “Efforts to celebrate his life and commemorate his death are stifled and silenced for no obvious legitimate reason. Not only does this constitute a repeated violation of human rights, but illustrates the steadfast efforts of the authorities to specifically target those individuals.”
In a post on its Facebook page on July 10, the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh joined the call for an impartial inquiry into what it called the “tragic death” Kem Ley.
“We renew our call for a full and transparent investigation of his assassination,” the post read.
The previous day, international and local civil society organizations including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Licadho and Adhoc released a statement also demanding the government establish an independent commission to investigate the killing of the prominent political commentator.