Soldiers and military commanders stationed along the Thai border have joined a veterans’ association to urge the government not to approve a public statue of slain political analyst Kem Ley in Phnom Penh, and vowed to remove it if erected.
CNRP lawmaker Ou Chanrath last week asked the Phnom Penh municipal government for permission to place a statue of the popular and outspoken commentator, who was gunned down inside a Phnom Penh convenience store on July 10, at the city’s Freedom Park. Though the man arrested for the shooting claims he killed Kem Ley over an unpaid debt, many are convinced it was a political assassination.
City Hall has yet to make a decision, but resistance to the proposal has been building among the country’s soldiers and veterans.
“We are absolutely against putting a statue of Mr. Kem Ley at Freedom Park because Kem Ley is not a hero and he is not military or police,” Brigadier General Chan Sokhon, deputy commander of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces’ 3rd Division, stationed in Preah Vihear province, said on Wednesday.
“If they bring the statue of Mr. Kem Ley to Freedom Park, we will go and remove it,” he said.
Srey Doek, the division commander, claimed that the entire 3rd Division was opposed to the statue and questioned where Kem Ley was during the bloody reign of the Khmer Rouge.
“We are absolutely against it,” he said. “During the regime of three years, eight months and 20 days, where was he?”
The public pushback started online with a post on Saturday to the Facebook page of the Cambodian Veterans Association, which claims more than 200,000 members.
“We have never demanded the construction of a statue for our soldiers,” it said, recalling the military’s role in reviving the country after the Khmer Rouge fell. “What has Kem Ley sacrificed or achieved equal to us?”
A post on the page on Wednesday went further, attacking the political commentator as a disloyal rabble rouser.
“Mr. Kem Ley was a person who had foreign tendencies to cause chaos in Cambodia and he did nothing for the national interest,” it said. “If they want to construct a statue of Mr. Kem Ley, they can put it at CNRP headquarters.”
Kem Ley was a frequent, and sometimes harsh, critic of the government with a considerable public following. But he was also respected by many for being more analytical and even-handed than many of the ruling party’s detractors. He was the driving force behind the creation of a new political party last year aimed at challenging what he considered the elitist tendencies of both the CPP and the CNRP.
Kem Ley’s widow, Bou Rachana, said on Wednesday that those opposing the statue were wrong to label her late husband a self-serving partisan.
“The people who talk like this, they do not understand society,” she said. “He did not act for himself; he acted for our people and our country. My husband did not support any party.”
The CNRP’s Mr. Chanrath said he had yet to hear back from City Hall since submitting the request on August 17. But he isn’t waiting for approval to get started.
The lawmaker has already commissioned a sculptor in Kompong Speu province who has fashioned a lifesize model from clay that will be used to make the mould for casting the statue in bronze. Photos of the clay model making the rounds on Facebook show Kem Ley standing at ease in a short-sleeve shirt and tie with a pen in his shirt pocket—his business-casual attire of choice—and a slight smile across his face.
Mr. Chanrath said he and his friends put up the $5,000 for the materials—the sculptor is donating his labor at no cost—and that it should be finished in a few weeks, with or without a public place to put it.
He stood by his request to have it placed at Freedom Park, which he called Democracy Square.
“He was just a very, very prominent commentator who helped many people understand what was happening in our society, our politics, and many other things… and many people respected him as a hero,” he said. “He talked the truth about our society, and that’s why I chose Democracy Square for the statue.”
He remained optimistic that City Hall would ultimately consent and was not yet prepared to start considering other locations.
“I don’t see any reason why City Hall would not approve it,” he said.
Spokesmen for City Hall declined to comment.
For the many who believe Kem Ley was killed for criticizing the government, his death has made him a martyr for democracy and free speech. It took the city eight years to approve a statue for union leader Chea Vichea, whose 2004 shooting remains unsolved and similarly shrouded in popular suspicion of a government-ordered hit.
Mr. Chanrath said he respected the sacrifice of the veterans opposing his proposal for a statue, but respectfully disagreed.
“I respect the credit they give themselves for protecting the country…but they cannot undermine or disrespect what Kem Ley has done. You cannot give a price to what Kem Ley has done,” he said.
Mr. Chanrath said those at City Hall weighing his request should also consider the popular analyst’s many fans and followers. On the day his body was driven to his final resting place in Takeo province, tens—if not hundreds—of thousands of mourners followed the procession out of Phnom Penh, choking off some of the city’s main thoroughfares for hours in a mass show of support.
“It depends on how many people respect Kem Ley,” the lawmaker said. “People see that Kem Ley has done a lot for the people: educating the people, speaking out, helping people understand the situation.”
(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)