Kem Ley’s Murder and Cambodia’s Other Worries

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Kem Ley’s Murder and Cambodia’s Other Worries

The killing is only one of a series of concerns that has surfaced in the Southeast Asian state in recent weeks.

The funeral procession for slain political analyst Kem Ley has been delayed by a week as tens of thousands of people continue to pour into the capital to pay their last respects, place flowers at his feet and yes – give money.

His grieving widow is a constant presence. She wants to move to Australia for the security of her four children and the one on the way. Their grandfather was also murdered, by the Khmer Rouge.

But the postponement has led to claims by the government that relatives of Kem Ley were politicizing the funeral for the benefit of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), whose leaders and supporters have been bashed and pursued through the courts in recent months.

CNRP leader, Sam Rainsy, has fled into exile while his deputy Kem Sokha is holed up at party headquarters in a legal stand-off with the authorities over a sex scandal.

Then there were further claims from within the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) that supporters of the popular radio host, who was gunned down execution-style, were also extending this period of mourning for financial gain.

It’s a bit much, particularly in light of the Global Witness report that estimated the base wealth of Prime Minister Hun Sen and his family at $200 million.

Reporting this has its potential dangers, as noted by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which says it is concerned by rising threats against journalists and news organizations following the July 7 release of the Global Witness report and the murder of Kem Ley three days later.

It said it was “alarmed by a surge in threats to journalists and in media self-censorship in Cambodia, exacerbated by political commentator and anti-corruption activist Kem Ley’s murder a week ago, and urges the government to stop intimidating the media.”

RSF also noted how Hun Mana, the prime minister’s eldest daughter, had condemned the “destructive efforts” of Global Witness, the Phnom Penh Post, and Cambodia Daily, accusing them of colluding to “disparage and defame the Hun family with false information” ahead of elections.

Local commune elections are due this time next year while general elections are still two years out.

Concern among press freedom watchdogs was also heightened by an anonymous letter published by pro-government media under the banner: “Behavior plunging Cambodians into a bonfire of war because of foreigners” accompanied by a Nazi propaganda cartoon.

“The reactions of all these officials and members of the prime minister’s family are outrageous even if not entirely surprising,” said Benjamin Ismaïl, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.

Meanwhile, as these familiar problems continue to play themselves out,  there was also a glimpse into the future as the Young Analysts Group (YAG) was established in Kem Ley’s memory.

It was an impressive line up of the nation’s youth – some students, some not – who want to analyze the political landscape without taking sides. They are simply: asking what’s going on?

In Cambodia, that’s a difficult and sometimes deadly question to find answers for. Deliberate ignorance and obfuscation are strong traits in the bureaucracy here, where too many kleptocrats have control. This plus corruption and a yawning wealth gap is why the CPP and Hun Sen are facing such an enormous voter backlash among the nation’s young people, who make up more than 65 percent of the population.

Hun Sen took line honors at the last election in 2013 but suffered a reduced majority with an embarrassing 22-seat loss in the 123-seat national assembly, after swathes of young voters sided with the CNRP.

By respecting the likes of YAG – without compromising its independence – and this country’s robust press, the prime minister can only improve his standing among the nation’s youth. That matters even more in the aftermath of Kem Ley’s assassination – whose funeral procession this Sunday will provide a catalyst for anti-government protests.

Such respect will also give the critics a pause for thought and might even help Hun Sen win the next election.

Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt