Bou Rachana sits at home with her four children, a hot meal prepared for dinner. They will eat it together as a family, but they feel alone doing so. In earlier times – in happier times – the children’s father, and Bou Rachana’s husband, Kem Ley, would be coming home soon to enjoy the meal with them.
He would be tired from a hard day’s work, known in his home country of Cambodia as a popular political commentator and staunch critic of the ruling government headed by Hun Sey. “Be careful,” his wife would frequently tell him in the morning, before he left home. “Be careful, because we have four children.”
Kem Ley’s wife and little children will never see him again.
Elsewhere, Kem Ley’s mother sits near a grave in her back yard, weeping softly. She can never forget what she has lost. For she will live every day of the rest of her life in a parent’s worst nightmare, knowing that she has outlived her child. She will never meet her grandchildren, and she will never again hold her son in her arms.
Kem Ley’s mother will never see him again.
In an act that shattered the hearts of the many people who knew and loved him, Kem Ley was shot dead at the age of 45. The man who was quickly arrested for the murder claimed that Kem Ley owed him $3,000 and refused to pay, prompting the savage killing.
That story is believed by virtually no one in the life of Kem Ley, who was known as a man who neither had debts nor was so covetous of money not to repay them if he did. It’s also not believed by a wide array of political experts and analysts around the world, who argue that Kem Ley’s death has all the hallmarks of a state sponsored assassination.
Six months later, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on December 23 closed its investigation. Judge Seng Leang, who was presiding over the case, informed Ley’s wife that the court had collected the relevant evidence and decided to end the investigation.
Prime Minister Hun Sen first came to power in Cambodia in the wake of the defeat of the Khmer Rouge, when he was favored by Vietnam to rule his nation. He was the de facto leader of Cambodia by military fiat, and as far back as 1987, global organizations such as Amnesty International accused him of the widespread use of torture and murder as a means of silencing political opposition.
His slim and dubious claim to legitimacy comes most strongly from his party’s electoral “victory” in 2013, in a race that has panned worldwide – and in Cambodia, among those who dare – as thoroughly corrupt and riddled with voter fraud. Hun Sen’s side narrowly won the election.
In theory, the ruling party is up for reelection in 2018, when the people of Cambodia should have an opportunity to unseat them. In practice, however, Hun Sen has spent every waking moment since 2013 cracking down on political dissent. Countless members of the primary opposition party have been savagely beaten in the streets, and at least a dozen have been arrested and subjected to corrupt show trials.
In these mockeries of justice, the accused have inevitably been found guilty and sentenced to as much as 20 years in prison for “crimes” as minor as posting information to Facebook deemed false by the Cambodian government.
The ruling regime’s repression of those who stand against them has been thorough. Sam Ramsey, a prominent opposition leader, has been stripped of his title and exiled from Cambodia. He lives in Paris, France, on the other side of the world, barred from ever returning to his home country. If he does cross the Cambodian border, Sam Ramsey faces prison time – for his presence would “cause bloodshed”, according the authorities – and even a lawsuit for accusations he has leveled against the government of murdering Kem Ley.
But it is not merely for speaking out against the government that activists like Kem Ley could become targets of official repression. Arguably, Kem Ley’s greatest threat to the government was his outreach work. He was fond of traveling out into the Cambodian countryside, where he would speak on a one to one level with some of the poorest people in what is already a very poor nation.
His aim was to educate his fellow Cambodians, and to inform them of their rights under the constitution and the law. By becoming a nationally recognized icon for this campaign of compassion, he grew to be dangerous.
It turns out that since taking power, Hun Sen and his family have established an economic stranglehold in Cambodia, clearing markets for their own businesses and erecting official hurdles in the paths of potential competitors. They have also engineered theft on a grand scale, taking land from the peasants of Cambodia – the kinds of people to whom Kem Ley used to speak – and appropriating it for the benefit of their own interests.
As has been noted by international experts, such regimes cannot afford to have an informed populace, who might come to recognize the corruption that is victimizing them. People like Kem Ley cannot be allowed to live.
Alas, Kem Ley is far from the only victim of Hun Sen’s regime. Another prominent example is a man called Chea Vichea, who led the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia. His work as a labor leader, organizing the exploited working class of Cambodia, made him a prime target, and he was shot in the head and chest in 2004 as he read his morning newspaper.
The Cambodian government dragged its feet for days following his murder, failing to investigate the crime, until mounting pressure compelled them to act. Two men were arrested for killing Chea Vichea, both of whom vigorously denied any involvement (one confessed, then recanted and claimed he had been tortured into taking responsibility) and had numerous alibis placing them in other parts of the country when the shooting occurred.
These men were found guilty in a trial that lacked any witnesses or forensic evidence, sentenced to 20 years in prison, and ordered to pay $5,000 each to Chea Vichea’s surviving the relatives. The family refused to accept the monetary award, saying they did not believe the men had killed their loved one.
Another victim was Chut Wutty, the Founder and Director of the Natural Resource Protection Group, a well-known environmentalist and outspoken critic of the Cambodian military’s allowing illegal logging by certain companies that enjoyed government favor. He was shot and killed in 2012 as he was working with two journalists near a protected forest, where he was attempting to expose criminal logging activities by the military. After his death, an independent investigation found that he had been killed while trying to flee from military police.
Of course, these are but a few of the victims of the brutal, repressive, and corrupt government of dictator Hun Sen. It is a regime that has no qualms about killing and torturing anyone courageous – or foolish – enough to speak out against their infamous practices. Their hold on Cambodia is tight, and it is dubious that they will even be required to face a real election in 2018.
With enough international oversight, and enough luck, we may hope to see a day when this barbaric government will have to abdicate, but of course, no matter what, that day has already failed to come soon enough for the families of countless noble people who said too much.