Cambodian activists vow to keep Kem Ley′s vision alive | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 22.08.2016
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Cambodian activists vow to keep Kem Ley's vision alive

Ley's followers mourn the activist's death but say his fight will continue. At the same time, many prominent critics of the Cambodian government have gone into hiding or have left the country fearing for their lives.

"Why is this happening? Why are they killing the intellectuals? Why is there no justice?" asked Sous Sophean.

Sophean, a Cambodian woman from a provincial town near Phnom Penh, is filled with anger. Kem Ley, one of her heroes, has been killed. Justice for his death seems far away. But it's not only the killing that worries her. What is Cambodia going to do now that it has lost one of its most prominent political researchers and most critical analysts?

Five weeks after his death, Kem Ley's birth village, Ang Takob in Takeo province, has turned into a pilgrimage site. Each day, groups of Cambodians travel to the village to pay their respects to the analyst and head of the Khmer for Khmer advocacy group, who was assassinated on July 10 in Phnom Penh. Every weekend, as many as 60 to 100 people stop by to offer prayers near his grave, his brother Kem Rithisith told DW. The burial site is also where the activists discuss strategies to preserve Ley's legacy.

In the past few years, Ley gave countless interviews to the media, explaining the complexity of Cambodian politics and the country's economy. He offered advice on a range of topics, from the situation of workers in the country's booming garment industry to the impact of illegal logging. He earned respect through his expertise and unbiased criticism of the government.

Kambodscha Kem Ley Regierungskritiker

Kem Lay's suspected murderer claimed to have carried out the shooting because Kem Lay failed to pay him back for a loan

In April 2015, Ley said Cambodia was reaching a turning point. "I foresee a number of scenarios for Cambodia," the analyst said. "The first scenario is that things will start improving in our country; the second that nothing will change; and the third scenario is that the government will impose more restrictions through all kinds of laws. We are currently at number one, but if we're not careful we will soon get to the third scenario."

Preserving Ley's legacy

In Ang Takob, Kem Rithisith reveals plans to preserve his brother's visions and ideas. He wants to open a café in Ley's name, plant a forest, build a statue, open a library and a school for investigative research. "Everything my brother said and published was the result of investigation," Rithisith told DW. "That is how we wish to remember him."

Perhaps even more important is the plan to collect all of his works and writings. By doing so, Ley's vision for a better Cambodia will not die, his friends say. "It wasn't only his vision that he brought to light; it was a collective vision for the future of our country," San Chey, executive director of the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability organization, told DW.

Over the past five years, Chey and Ley worked closely together. "Ley paved the way for us, and that is something we will never forget. It will be difficult to continue without him, but we have to do it anyway," said Chey.

On their way to undertake charity work in the province, student Tita Phou and her friends made a stop at Ley's burial site. Phou believes Ley's ideas can still be beneficial for Cambodia. "He told us what was really happening, and he wasn't afraid to discuss sensitive topics like Cambodia's border conflict with Vietnam. He believed that the country's political parties should have more respect for each other and should work together for the benefit of the country."

Living in fear

Friends and relatives of the slain activist refuse to believe that Ley was killed over a debt, as the arrested gunman claimed. They suspect he was killied for political reasons.

Cambodia has a long history of political violence and assassinations of prominent activists. Many Cambodians compare Ley's murder with the killing of labor union leader Chea Vichea, who was shot dead in 2004. The court sent two men to jail for the assassination, but they were later released after the Supreme Court ruled they were falsely charged. It is still unclear who killed Vichea and what was the motive behind his murder. Many Cambodians fear the truth behind the killing of Ley will also remain a mystery.

Kambodscha Grabstätte von Kem Ley

Lao Mong Hay (left) and Kem Rithisith at Kem Ley's burial site in Ang Takob, Takeo province

Ley's murder has also sparked fears of more political violence. Two environmental activists have fled Cambodia. Buddhist monk But Buntenh, the founder of the Independent Monk Network for Social Justice, has also gone into hiding. In a Facebook post he said he was "living in fear."

Lao Mong Hay says he relates to Buntenh's fear. The political activist was Ley's friend and colleague. Often, the two shared their views on Cambodian politics on the media.

Hay believes that Ley could be compared to Martin Luther King Jr., the American civil rights leader who was assassinated in 1968. Hay also calls for justice and the preservation of Ley's work.

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