The Anti-Vietnamese Legacy of Kem Ley

There were two sides to Kem Ley, the beloved Cambodian activist who was murdered five years ago: the calm, insightful public intellectual, and the hyperbolic nationalist who wanted to rid Cambodia of “illegal Vietnamese immigrants”, writes Tim Frewer.

In 2016, Dr. Kem Ley was the darling of Cambodia’s pro-democracy movement. He had worked as an AIDS researcher, and as an analyst for United Nations agencies and USAID. Foreign and local journalists flocked to him for his pithy, unsparing commentary about the corruption of his country’s elites, including authoritarian prime minister Hun Sen.

For instance, when the anti-corruption organisation Global Witness released a report in July 2016 about the ill-gotten fortunes of Hun Sen and his relatives, reporters sought out Kem Ley for a response. In one interview with Voice of America, he said Cambodia’s elite families were, in fact, far more corrupt than public information suggested.

“If we compare [their wealth] to a pond, we only see just a few fish that are jumping above the water surface. But it is possible that there are still plenty of other fish underneath,” he said, speaking metaphorically as he was fond of doing.

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