Tram Kak district, Takeo province – Traveling 80 km from Phnom Penh to Takeo province by motorbike in the scalding heat on Sunday, Chhit Chhaya came prepared with a hot drink suitable for the spirit of her hero—Kem Ley.
“I brought this coffee as an offering because I know he likes coffee,” she said, lifting a flask while sitting beneath a tree in the slain political analyst’s garden.
“I’ve brought this mat to sleep, too. I will manage to sleep next to his grave,” she added, her eyes welling up with tears.
Ms. Chhaya, 53, was among more than a thousand people who flocked to Tram Kak district on Sunday to pay their respects to the radio commentator who was gunned down a year ago today while drinking his morning coffee inside a Phnom Penh convenience store.
The murder led to a mass outpouring of grief across the nation for arguably its most popular political analyst, respected for his ability to convey complex ideas in accessible language while offering balanced critiques of both the ruling and opposition parties.
There was also widespread anger as many remained suspicious that the slaying was a politically motivated killing sanctioned by the government. The ensuing investigation and conviction of Oeuth Ang—a poor former soldier who claimed to have killed Kem Ley over an unpaid debt—did little to quell the mistrust.
White tents around Kem Ley’s childhood home, which his mother has made into a shrine over the past year, were filled to the brim with those who had made the pilgrimage from across the country on Sunday to meet, talk and burn incense. Absent were Kem Ley’s widow and sons, who fled the country after the murder seeking resettlement and new lives outside Cambodia.
At about 2:30 p.m., a media scrum ensued as opposition leader Kem Sokha arrived to pay his respects to the late analyst, whom he labeled “the patriot.”
“We have to give value to the patriot. Give the value to the one who has wisdom. We give the value to the educated person,” Mr. Sokha said, before claiming that a CNRP government would get to the bottom of Kem Ley’s murder.
“When we one day win the election and lead the government, we can find justice,” he said. “It is not difficult.”
Kem Rithisith, the 47-year-old brother of Kem Ley, said he was overwhelmed with the huge turnout for his sibling, who, he claimed, expected to be killed for his critiques one day.
“He dared to sacrifice his life even though he knew that he was going to die. He still did analysis in order to make people in every corner listen to his words,” he said.
Despite hoards of supporters, opposition lawmakers, rights workers, land rights activists and academics attending the ceremony, only lower-level CPP officials were among the visitors, and they kept a low profile, Mr. Rithisith said.
“For the CPP party, the leadership did not show their face,” he said.
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said he did not know why there had been no high-ranking ruling party officials in attendance, but accused the CNRP of exploiting the event for political gain.
“In democratic countries, the understanding is not the same as each other,” Mr. Eysan said. “Some, they take advantage for political gain, but we don’t know how to take political advantage.”
Taking a break from posing for photographs with members of the public, Prince Sisowath Thomico, a prominent CNRP official and the only member of the royal family openly aligned with the opposition, said he thought the ruling party should have sent a representative for his friend’s memorial.
“Kem Ley has become a symbol of the whole nation as far as democracy, freedom are concerned, so I think that they should have come,” the prince said.
“Maybe they might have something to hide,” he added.
Sitting next to her friend Ms. Chhaya, under a tree as it began to rain, In Sreyleak, 37, gave a cryptic assessment of the CPP’s absence.
“Perhaps they are scared of their shadow,” she said.