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Kem Ley’s murder must not make us lose hope for Cambodia

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There was a huge turnout for Kem Ley’s funeral procession in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Photo by Chan Sok Lay for Oxfam

A critic of corruption, who wrote fables to teach citizens about their basic rights, was a powerful voice for change.

Khim Lay is Oxfam’s regional extractive industries program coordinator for East Asia, based in Cambodia.

Last month, hundreds of thousands of people from many parts of Cambodia took to the streets for the funeral procession of Dr. Kem Ley. His body was transported 50 miles from Phnom Penh to his hometown in Takeo province, and crowds of people paid respect to this man. News reports say the convoy stretched for several kilometers, and included banners with Kem Ley’s famous words, “Wipe away your tears, continue your journey.”

Kem Ley, 45, was shot at a gas station on July 10th. He was getting a cup of coffee there, as he did every morning. He and I knew each other for more than 30 years, we were classmates in school in Takeo, and we both worked for the UN Development Programme before I began work at Oxfam and he became an independent analyst working on natural resource management, the rights of indigenous people and women, and advocating for peaceful social change and democracy in Cambodia. He did several projects for Oxfam, including conducting a political analysis of Cambodia to inform our program strategy.

When I heard the news of my friend’s death, I was horrified. As I write this, my heart is broken and I don’t see how I will recover from this loss.

A voice for positive change

Kem Ley was an independent political commentator. His education started with public health and he became an HIV/AIDs advisor for the UN. Since 2012, he became one of Cambodia’s best known social commentators, and was frequently on radio and television talking about the underlying causes of poverty in Cambodia, and what was holding back our social and political development. He explained policy failures and the political power behind them in terms everyone could understand. And he always provided policy recommendations, his suggestions for the best ways to address development issues. Here are a few of them:

Defending the rights of indigenous people to communal land:  The indigenous people of Cambodia have a right to Communal Land Title (CLT), but the bureaucratic process to achieve it is too slow. While they wait for CLTs, communities are vulnerable to land grabs facilitated by the government through Economic Land Concessions for plantations and other activities that destroy the forests and deprive people of their land. Kem Ley said that at the current rate it would take 50 years for Cambodia to complete CLTs for 503 indigenous communities in the two most vulnerable provinces, Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri. He urged the government to speed up this process.

Indigenous communities in Cambodia’s northeast are at risk of land grabs and deforestation. Kem Ley was critical of the slow pace of government offices responsible for granting Communal Land Title to indigenous communities. Photo by Patrick Brown/Panos for Oxfam America.
Indigenous communities in Cambodia’s northeast are at risk of land grabs and deforestation. Kem Ley was critical of the slow pace of government offices responsible for granting Communal Land Title to indigenous communities. Photo by Patrick Brown/Panos for Oxfam America.

Defending the freedom of expression of independent analysts: When Kem Ley’s peer Ou Virak faced a defamation law suit filed by the ruling party in April 2016, Ley spoke out. He said the court system should not be used as a means to suppress the voices of independent analysts. He branded the role of an independent analyst as a “curtain opener” who helps to educate citizens, so they can understand social and political issues that might be otherwise decided behind closed doors.

Corruption issues: After the release of the Global Witness  report titled “Hostile Takeover,” on 6 July, Ley was interviewed by Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, and he discussed  abuse of power for private gain; conflicts of interest in decisions and policy making, lack of contract transparency, and the lack of competition in procurement of goods and services.

Speaking out despite repression

When Kem Ley was fatally shot, he and others who are defending the human rights of Cambodians were operating in a tense environment. In May, four officers of the human rights group ADHOC and an election official were arrested and detained for allegedly bribing a young woman to remain silent in relation to a sex scandal involving an opposition party leader, Kem Sokha. Ley continued with his work, speaking publicly about poverty and human rights, despite the repression of others doing similar work.

At the time of his death, he was writing a 90-part series of allegorical political fables. He was up to number 19: “The chicken said: ‘It’s better to live in a small forest with freedom, rather than in a big forest full of tigers and other cruel animals.’ There are other gentle animals that went [to the garden of fruit], but were eaten by cruel animals with no mercy, which left [them] full of fear. Kill one to scare one thousand.”

He was also in the middle of what he called the 100 Nights Campaign, in which he visited different poor rural communities to report on their struggles and concerns over logging and deforestation, land conflicts, border issues, and immigration.

Kem Ley was fearless. Being an outspoken political commentator, he discussed the possibility that he could be assassinated. But he also told us “Wipe away your tears, continue your journey.” We will do that, but we must also protect those who are defending human rights and providing us with the analysis of public policies we need to change the country for the better. Our civil society organizations need the space to do their work without repression, and our citizens need to keep demanding justice, not least for those responsible for the murder of Kem Ley.

As one of his friends, I want this country to benefit from Kem Ley’s research and writing, to see the light from his powerful voice of hope, and continue to hear his powerful voice of change.

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