Thousands of Cambodians gathered at a Buddhist temple in the capital on Saturday to mourn slain government critic Kem Ley, a popular commentator praised as a hero for his fearless political analysis.
Supporters gave funeral alms to 600 Buddhist monks at Watt Bodhiyaram in Phnom Penh , where Kem Ley’s flower-covered glass coffin was being displayed.
“It’s hard to find such a brave person like him in Cambodia,” Hak Kin, a mourner at the temple, told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“If I were able to trade in my life with his to make him alive now, I would not hesitate to do so. His life is more important,” he said.
“I am very saddened by this great loss,” said Ath Thun, president of Cambodia’s largest independent trade union, the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union.
“He’s a real hero in our hearts. Even though there was no such official recognition, he truly was our hero,” he told RFA.
Kem Ley, 46, was murdered on July 10 at a gas station convenience store that he often stopped at to talk with friends. He was shot twice at point-blank range.
A Cambodian court charged a former soldier named Oueth Ang with premeditated murder on Wednesday for the execution-style killing of Kem Ley. Authorities have said that Kem Ley was killed over an outstanding $3,000 debt to Oueth Ang, but many in Cambodia question that explanation.
Initial plans to move Kem Ley to his home village in Takeo province have been put on hold in the face of potential conflict over what is expected to be a large funeral procession .
“If there are any constraints or tension in the procession of Kem Ley’s body to his home village then I will decide not to go there,” Kem Ley’s pregnant widow, Pou Rachana told RFA.
“I do not want to move Kem Ley’s body to a distant location — to his home village as planned — because I think that my family’s situation is very fragile and it will be very difficult to travel back and forth,” she said.
“The best choice would be looking for a nearby location.”
Fearless critic mourned
Kem Ley was also honored by Cambodian communities in the United States, with ceremonies at Buddhist temples in Massachusetts, Florida and other places.
Political tension between long-ruling strongman Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party and the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) has been intensifying this year as the parties prepare to contest local elections in 2017 and a general election in 2018.
A widely quoted analyst, Kem Ley had appeared on a RFA Khmer Service call-in show to discuss a report by the London-based NGO Global Witness documenting how Hun Sen and his family have amassed a $200 million fortune. The Hun family has dismissed the report.
“I listened to Dr. Kem Ley on radios. I liked him for being very straightforward and truthful in his criticism,” Phnom Penh taxi driver Phuong Ko told RFA.
“He was a Khmer hero. He loved his country and people so much. He was killed because he spoke the truth.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Yanny Hin and Nareth Muong. Written in English by Paul Eckert.