Tram Kak district, Takeo province – Standing inside the childhood home of slain political analyst Kem Ley on Sunday afternoon, cafe owner Chea Sopha explains why he made the more than 100 km pilgrimage from Kompong Speu province to the birthplace of his hero.
“He did not exaggerate for benefit. This point is his great virtue. I am fascinated with him, not only me, but many other Khmer children,” he said.
Mr. Sopha then broke down in tears. “He was the simplest person even though he had a high education,” he said.
The 53-year-old was just one of a never-ending flow of Cambodians trickling through the late political analyst’s home over Khmer New Year. Some would pose for photographs in front of his life-sized statue. Others would light incense in front of the grave, or pay their emotional and financial respects to Kem Ley’s 78-year-old mother, Phok Se, who spends her days lying on a bed surrounded by photos and blown-up quotes from her much-loved son, who was gunned down in Phnom Penh in July in what was widely thought to be a politically motivated hit.
Speaking in little more than a whisper, Ms. Se said that more than 40 people a day visited the house over the holiday. Despite the number of well-wishers, she said it did little to ease her pain.
“Before he died, we were very happy during the New Year. Now, there is nothing to be happy about. Even though there are guests coming in and out, I’m still not happy,” she said.
The stream of visitors were not pilgrims making a good deed especially for the New Year. Kem Ley’s brother, Kem Rithiseth, who was also at the house, said visitors walk through the front gates every day, come rain or shine.
Up to 20 or 30 people drop in on weekdays, while weekends can see about 50 to 60 people, he said. While most come from Takeo or neighboring provinces, others travel from as far afield as Ratanakkiri in the northeast or Banteay Meanchey out west. Even the occasional foreigner drops in.
While an area outside the house is decked out with photos of Kem Ley’s beaming smile and the statue, there are also—rather strangely—photos and paintings of his bloodied corpse lying inside the Star Mart convenience store after he was shot by former soldier Oeuth Ang, who was sentenced to life behind bars last month.
Mr. Rithiseth said the photos of his brother’s death were displayed to convey its brutality.
“The pictures were placed for the guests to see and witness the way in which he was killed,” he said.
With the home turned into something of a memorial for the political analyst—who was 46 at the time of his death—the murdered man’s reputation appears only to have grown.
Cham Bunthet, a political analyst and adviser to the opposition Grassroots Democracy Party, which was the brainchild of Kem Ley, said many of the pilgrims were paying their respects to a figure who was arguably the country’s foremost analyst because of the public’s deep respect for his teachings.
“I think his voice, his words, his wisdom and his courage remain in the heart of Khmer people. That’s why they go there to show their respects,” he said.
However, Mr. Bunthet said, he believed there were many who had only become fans after his death.
“They love him—especially after his assassination,” he said. “Some of them were not his supporters when he was a political commentator because some of them are CNRP supporters and some of them used to paint him as a CPP creation. But after his assassination, a lot of people go there, taking photos, selfies…showing that they respect him.”
Kem Ley’s murder—which came in the aftermath of a scathing report into the riches of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s family, and as Kem Ley was in the process of releasing a series of fables about Cambodian political life—became a stamp of authenticity.
“I think they show their respects after his assassination because they know he is a symbol of truth, a symbol of change. But I think they love him after he’s died, not before—many of them,” Mr. Bunthet said.
Yun Sovann, who had taken the drive from Kandal province’s Ang Snuol district, was burning incense in respect of the “daring” critic—something he hadn’t done for any other public figure.
“I am not as daring as him. If I was as daring as this, I could be [killed] like him,” he said.
“This is for him…because I am grieving,” he said. “I have not burned incense for anyone like this.”