Tram Kak district, Takeo province – Traditional music drifted from loudspeakers and mixed with voices from the crowd at a ceremonial tent as two large, beaming portraits of slain social and political analyst Kem Ley beckoned supporters inside.
At the memorial on July 10 in Kem Ley’s hometown of Daun Keo City, a wide range of attendees were present, including health officials checking temperatures over fears of Covid-19, plainclothes police officers observing the ceremony, as well as members of civil society organizations, youth activists, and neighbors paying tribute.
In the yard where the ceremony was being held, the human rights defender’s stupa was laid with flowers and photos.
This year marked the fourth anniversary of Kem Ley’s death after he was gunned down at a Caltex gas station in Phnom Penh allegedly over a $3,000 debt. The gunman, Oeuth Ang, who gave his name as “Chuob Samlab”, or “Meet to Kill”, was sentenced to life in prison in 2017 for premeditated murder and for illegally obtaining a weapon.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court split a second investigation into some aspects of the case later that year, which a court official said this month was still underway. However, international and local civil society organizations have deemed the previous and current investigations insufficient, and have demanded that an impartial committee be formed to carry out a transparent investigation into all possible parties involved in the killing.
At the four-year death anniversary ceremony, Kem Ley’s family and supporters expressed their discontent with the sentencing of Ang, insisting the real perpetrators are yet to be found.
Burning incense in front of photos of Kem Ley, Oeun Anoch, a supporter of Kem Ley, said she and 10 friends had traveled from Phnom Penh to pay tribute to the political analyst. Wearing a white T-shirt printed with a photo of Kem Ley, she appealed for justice.
“There is not even one speck of justice. They want to silence it,” she said. “There is no such thing as ‘seeking justice’. Every year, when people want to burn incense to pay tribute to him or go to Bokor neighborhood [in Phnom Penh] to hold a ceremony, the authorities also ban them.”
Kem Ley’s sister Kem Thavy, said that the family is still awaiting justice for her younger brother, saying the person who was sentenced did not commit the crime. Thavy, 59, added that her brother would get justice should the government seek it.
“It depends on the government,” she said. “Please, help find the real murderer because we can’t accept the current one.”
Sitting on a bench in front of a vase of incense burning near photos of Kem Ley, elderly people chit-chatted while Kem Ley’s mother sat quietly to the side, looking on.
Phork Se, 79, said she constantly missed her son although he had been dead for four years.
“Whenever I miss him, I just bear it,” she said. “This is his karma that he got shot. Now they took that karma back.”
The years have also not changed the memories that many of Kem Ley’s supporters still have of his courage and the way he inspired young people to engage in politics.
Standing near a statue of Kem Ley and holding a Cambodian flag, Uy Sovannlandy, 27, who took part in the four-year anniversary ceremony, said she had great respect for Kem Ley as a researcher and an academic who had made many sacrifices for Cambodian society. She added that she had read Kem Ley’s work for many years and fondly recalled listening to his analysis in the media.
“He wanted to see the country develop” Sovannlandy said. “Wherever there’s an issue, I see him take it on directly, unlike other academics. He is an ordinary person, and his analysis is clear with supporting data. He is a role model.”
On July 8, about 50 police and security officials blocked a group of 20 monks and youth who had attempted to lay a wreath to pay tribute to Kem Ley at the Caltex gas station in Bokor neighborhood in Phnom Penh where he was killed.
Then on July 10, provincial and district authorities stopped more than 50 people traveling from Phnom Penh to take part in an anniversary ceremony at Kem Ley’s hometown in Takeo for more than three hours about 10 kilometers from their destination. Authorities, some with shields,were dispatched along the road to put up barricades.
A day before Kem Ley’s anniversary, some 30 international and local civil society organizations issued what has become an annual statement demanding the government establish an independent investigative committee with UN participation to probe the government critic’s murder.
“The Cambodian government’s continued antipathy towards Kem Ley’s case raises suspicions that he was murdered in retaliation for his work as a human rights defender,” the statement reads. “Kem Ley had often spoken on political and social issues,” it says, pointing out that the critic was killed just just days after commenting on a Global Witness report on the assets of the family of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Chak Sopheap, executive director at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, who also attended the anniversary, said this year’s ceremony saw more restrictions by authorities than those in previous years, signaling a lack of willingness to allow the public to pay homage to the popular government critic.
She added that the government had continued to ignore calls for justice in Kem Ley’s murder, despite repeated calls by civil society groups.
“While we commemorate the 4th year anniversary of his death, justice is still yet to come,” she said. “We fail to see the light of justice while no effort from the authorities shows that there’s no will in seeking justice.”
She added that the government’s unwillingness to seek justice in the case would only further propagate the nation’s culture of impunity.
“The continuation of the culture of impunity is a risk for Cambodia because this leads to people lacking confidence in the justice system in the country and also the criminals committing crimes since they know they could be above the law,” she said.
However, Chin Malin, Ministry of Justice spokesman and deputy director of the Cambodian Human Rights Committee, said the government had already found the perpetrator and sentenced him. He added that those who are not satisfied with the court’s decision should cooperate and hand over evidence to the court to show that there is another culprit.
“The government can’t provide justice according to the sentiments of those who are against or bear grudges against the government and those who are taking advantage of the opportunity to gain political ground on a dead person for whom a ceremony is held every year,” he said.
Kem Ley is only one among a list of victims who have been gunned down in Cambodia and failed to receive justice, including union leader Chea Vichea, environmental activist Chhut Vuthy and actress and dancer Piseth Pilika.
Bou Rachna, Kem Ley’s wife, who now resides in Australia with her five children, said that she sees no sign of justice for her husband in the future.
“In Cambodia, those who died in the Phnom Penh regime do not receive justice,” she said in a voice message. “It’s not just my husband, even the victims before him around 10 years ago did not receive any justice. Thus, there’s not even a ray of justice.”