In the early morning of Sunday, July 10, 2016, two bullets put an end to the life of Kem Ley. The nation lost a great son. His assassination was yet another national tragedy. The news instantly shocked the nation, and people immediately thronged to the place of his murder, sad, distraught and angry. They then took his body to Wat Chas monastery, on the east bank of Tonle Sap river in Phnom Penh, for mourning ceremonies.
The nation was grieving for him. For many days, throngs and throngs of his fellow countrymen went to express their condolences, pay their last respects to him and mourn his death. Where they could not make it to that monastery, they were holding mourning ceremonies in their own localities. The international community was also saddened by his death, and many foreign dignitaries went in person to express their condolences and pay their last respects to him.
All called for thorough, independent investigations into his murder with international participation, not trusting the national ones since Kem Ley was a prominent government critic and his killing was widely suspected to be a political murder.
Many years before his assassination, he was devoting his life to the search through fieldwork for the truth behind a wide range of politically sensitive problems concerning basically all aspects of governance and social justice. Among those issues were corruption in and inefficiency of the government and public administration, their shortcomings and failures; nepotism; the plight of local and migrant workers, failure to protect their rights and wellbeing; land grabbing; logging and deforestation; illegal immigration especially of Vietnamese nationals; concessions of vast tracts of land, especially those contiguous to Vietnam; the borders with that country; the settlement of Vietnamese nationals on the Cambodian side of the borders, the concessions of Cambodian islands in the Gulf of Thailand and the undemocratic functioning of political parties.
Before his death, Kem Ley started a project he named “One Hundred Nights,” under which he was to make homestays with villagers in the border areas with Vietnam, on some Cambodian islands in the Gulf of Thailand, with Khmer Krom villagers (indigenous Khmer people) in Southern Vietnam and with Khmer Surin villagers in the Northeastern Thai region of Surin. He was to find out about their life and issues of their concern. He was training and organizing youths and intellectuals to do research and develop policies in different fields.
Clad with solid facts and figures, Kem Ley was telling those factual truths, directly and through fables, at different forums, on radio and on social media. And he had the courage to do so, feeling little concern for his own security. He was talking about those issues, making comments on them, scrutinizing the way those issues were overlooked, handled or addressed, criticizing neglect, ineffectiveness or failure in handling them, proposing resolutions, and advocating reform and change. Many of those issues and some of the truths behind them were commonly known. Many in his audiences had wished they could air their concern over them in public themselves, should they have Kem Ley’s knowledge, stature, skills and courage.
Kem Ley knew those truths fully and thoroughly. He confirmed them with facts and figures and told them in plain language—in the language of the people—at times with a biting wit to hammer home his messages. His audiences understood more fully all those truths. He was telling and conveying them in public on their behalf to those who had the power and responsibility to address them. And they loved and adored him and supported his ideas and advocacy. They believed in his words, so truthful and beautiful his words were.
His truth-telling was educational. People now had a better and clearer idea of what was going wrong in the country and who was responsible for it, of how to change it for the better and perhaps of who could bring about this change as well. People loved and adored him and wanted to listen to him. His audience grew in size, covering the whole country and beyond. He was the man of the people. But truthful words are bitter, as a Khmer saying goes. His truth-telling was not very much liked by those on both sides of the country’s political divide for whom those words, very critical at times, were mainly meant.
Kem Ley was a great truth-teller, and, as the huge number of people grieving for him (next to that for the King Father nearly four years ago) has testified, he had an immense influence.
To those who saw him as their critic, he and the truths he was telling were not welcome. At times he received hurtful rebukes and veiled threats to his life. All the more so when telling the truth was revolutionary—was bringing change—as indeed his truth-telling was, a development that was and still is fiercely resisted. Just as Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said that a great writer was “a second government” in his country, so Kem Ley, being a great truth-teller, was nothing short of being one in his own country, which is a country of oral culture. He became all the more disliked when the 2017 and 2018 elections were looming. Kem Ley’s truth-telling could well swing votes and change the fortune of contesting parties. He could well be a mortal danger, especially to the party whose fortune was most hanging in the balance. That danger must be eliminated. Kem Ley was not to tell the truth any more. He was shot dead. Dead men don’t talk.
Though having lost its great son, the nation could and should discover and recover the late Kem Ley’s treasure of wisdom. But first it owes him justice without delay, and to find it, a search for the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, in its investigations into his murder, for justice cannot be done without truth.
Next the nation could and should ponder over and appreciate Kem Ley’s wisdom, his ideas, his principles, his service and his worth to the nation. He was, and still is, the man of the people, their educator, their voice, their shining light, the light of truth, That light should not be left to die with his body. Everything should be done to secure his immortality.
Kem Ley selflessly devoted his life to searching for truth, telling the truth, braving all danger to tell it, and all this for the whole nation, to improve its governance and the wellbeing of the whole people, and to combat injustices inflicted upon the weak and the poor. In a press interview in 2014, he said he did not want to do anything, he did not want to form any political party, any government, occupy any big chair (be a big man), apart from doing social work “until he died” for that would be “a remarkably great position” for him.
Therefore, if it were to become a great one, the nation should honor him and pay him an appropriate tribute. In this regard, it could look to the U.S., that great nation, for what it has to honor and pay tribute to one of its great sons, Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights leader of the 1950s and 1960s, whose life and fate Kem Ley very much shared. Both men selflessly devoted their lives to a good cause (civil rights for black Americans for Martin Luther King, and good governance, wellbeing of and justice for the Cambodian people for Kem Ley); both were braving a mortal danger to their lives, a danger both actually had premonition of; both were assassinated with gunshots and both left nothing to their families.
If the U.S. model is any guide, Cambodia should look into all the problems Kem Ley raised and, as a tribute to him, heed his recommendations and resolve them. This tribute would be even more appropriate if it could recognize him as a great truth-teller. In a country where greed, egoism, partiality, partisanship, illusion, lies, falsehoods and propaganda are boggling, muddling, polluting and even poisoning the minds of its people and enfeebling their morality, it should glorify the value he adhered to when expressing himself. That value was truth. The nation should own truth and truthfulness as one of its core values and also one of its people’s virtues. It should encourage the search for truth, promote truth-telling and appreciation of truth, and allow searchers for truth and truth-tellers their own independent and secure realm.
The tribute to the late Kem Ley would be the greater if the nation could keep the light of truth he represents shining. It should erect a big statue of him as memorial to enshrine this light, name it “God of Truth” (“Satya Deva” in Sanskrit, “Sacca Deva” in Pali, “Veritas” in Latin) and inscribe underneath it the maxims: “Fiat Veritas, et pereat mundus” (Let Truth be done, though the world may perish), and “Fiat iustitia, et pereat mundus” (Let justice be done, though the world may perish).
The tragedy following Kem Ley’s assassination already unites the nation. A national tribute to him, as suggested above, would only consolidate this unity. And Kem Ley’s tragic death would then be a turning point for the better for the nation. He could then rest in peace.
Lao Mong Hay is a political analyst and former legal adviser to the opposition CNRP.
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