Phnom Penh officials made a sharp about-face on Wednesday after curtly rejecting repeated requests for a 100-day funeral ceremony for slain political analyst Kem Ley, but insisted that crowds be kept away from visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Over the past week, City Hall had refused to let a committee of Kem Ley’s friends and family hold the traditional ceremony at either Phnom Penh’s Wat Botum park or Wat Chas.
Officials accused them of trying to turn the July 10 shooting of the popular government critic, which many believe was politically motivated, into an anti-government protest.
The committee vowed to hold the three-day event at Wat Chas starting Friday, regardless of the ban, and finally persuaded officials to back off after a two-hour meeting at City Hall on Wednesday morning.
“We see that the ceremony is very simple, so we will let them hold it at Wat Chas,” City Hall spokesman Mean Chanyada said afterward, laying out some conditions.
“We focused on two things: first, to ensure the ceremony does not affect the visit from President Xi Jinping; second, to ensure it does not affect the commemoration for the late king,” he said.
Mr. Xi arrives in Cambodia today and leaves on Friday, the first day of Kem Ley’s funeral ceremony. The late King Norodom Sihanouk’s death will be commemorated on Saturday.
Organizers also are barred from marching through Phnom Penh on Sunday—the last day of the ceremony—with a life-size copper statue of Kem Ley that his supporters recently commissioned. Mr. Chanyada said they could meet on the city’s outskirts and proceed with the statue from there to Takeo City, where Kem Ley is buried.
He said officials changed their minds about allowing the ceremony inside the city because “lots of people” had endorsed the requests. Mr. Chanyada declined to explain why that had not satisfied them from the beginning.
“What does the Daily want? Conflict? That’s enough,” he said, and hung up.
Pa Nguon Teang, one of the organizers, welcomed the city’s flip-flop and said that getting the officials and committee members around the same table made the difference.
“They said that…now we were face to face and we could understand each other,” he said.
Activist monk But Buntenh, another organizer, said officials were also happy that some of Kem Ley’s relatives supported their request. He said Kem Pesith and Kem Thavy, two of Kem Ley’s siblings, had joined the funeral committee. The city had complained earlier that family, not friends, should be making the plans.
“We told City Hall that relatives of Kem Ley were on the committee and that they would continue with the ceremony on the evening of the 16th and on the 17th in Takeo province,” But Buntenh said.
The monk said he was expecting some 100,000 people to show up for the three-day event.
Tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people followed Kem Ley’s body when it was driven out of the city to his home province of Takeo on July 25.