Isolated and Estranged, Kem Ley’s Family Struggles After Murder

The year since the assassination of political analyst Kem Ley has been a difficult one for his family. His widow is struggling to make ends meet, his children are not attending school and his extended family is fractured. His siblings have never met the son who was born in the wake of his death last July.

Bou Rachana, Kem Ley’s wife who fled while pregnant with the couple’s four sons to Bangkok in August in search of permanent asylum in a third country, said on Thursday that she and the boys are living a life of frugality and isolation as they hope—and wait—for a new life abroad.

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Bou Rachana, the widow of slain political analyst Kem Ley, places incense at her husband’s shrine during his funeral in July last year. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

“Imagine you lost the person who was the breadwinner,” she said. ”It’s hard for my family…. My kids have been unable to study for nearly a year because we don’t know anyone here.”

Unable to speak Thai, she said she could not run a business like she had in Phnom Penh. The family, including her youngest son, who was born in October, is living on dwindling savings put away before Kem Ley’s murder.

Ms. Rachana said the family was still awaiting approval from another country to settle down and build a new life. She declined to offer details about a potential destination, but said days after her husband was gunned down in a Phnom Penh convenience store on July 10 that she was considering relocating to Australia.

As plans to honor her husband in his Takeo province hometown on Sunday and Monday are underway, Ms. Rachana said it was hard to come to terms with being separated from the country and people who so highly respected her husband.

“I am out of Cambodia, so I will cook food to offer to the monks for my husband” on Monday’s anniversary of his death, she said. “I feel sad that I can’t join at his hometown… [but] his honor will continue, and his sacrifice will forever be remembered in the minds of Cambodians.”

The life sentence given to Kem Ley’s killer, Oeuth Ang—whom officials refer to by the name he initially gave police, Chuop Samlap, which translates as “Meet Kill”—offered insufficient justice for her husband, she said.

Bou Rachana holds her newborn son, Kem Ley Virak, in a photograph posted to the Facebook page of CNRP official Sang Sann in October.

“Even now, I still do not acknowledge that Chuop Samlap is the real killer,” she said. “Maybe they thought when they convicted him everything would be OK, but it’s just their decision to convict or not.”

The investigation into Kem Ley’s murder, widely criticized as a politically motivated hit, is still ongoing despite the verdict handed down in March, with two other men called additional suspects.

Back in Cambodia, Kem Ley’s older sister Kem Thavy said she had not spoken to his widow or sons since they fled the country. Neither Ms. Rachana nor her family members responded to messages asking about their whereabouts, she said.

“Up until now, I have never seen the face of the fifth son. I want to know how he is, but I don’t know where they are,” she said.

Meanwhile, Ms. Thavy said, her mother struggled without her brother’s financial contributions and she had become afraid to speak out about her brother’s death for fear of becoming a victim herself.

Her brother, Kem Rithyseth, however, said he would continue to fight for answers.

“Even though my brother is dead, I am not afraid,” he said. “He didn’t see his sons finish school or get a job, but instead he sacrificed his life for the nation, which made its people stronger and braver.”

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