On the morning of 10 July 2016, Kem Ley was having his morning coffee in a shop he regularly frequented when he was shot and killed. Educated in Cambodia, Malaysia and Thailand Ley spent much of his life working as HIV/AIDs researcher as well as an analyst for various UN agencies. He is survived by his wife Bou Rachana and four sons. His fifth son was born four months after his murder.
Ley was also a political commentator and highly critical of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party. A strong voice for civil society in Cambodia he often advocated for human rights. In 2014 he founded an advocacy group called ‘Khmer for Khmer’ which pushed for grass roots political organisation across the country and criticised government corruption and illegal logging.
Ley’s death came days after he criticised prime minister, Hun Sen, over the results of a Global Witness report. It detailed a vast network of secret deal making and corruption which had greatly enriched the premier’s family. Immediately after the killing an alleged perpetrator was arrested and confessed to the killing – stating that the murder was over an unpaid debt of $3,000. However no evidence has arisen that Ley was in financial difficulty or had ever been in contact with the alleged perpetrator.
Many believe that the killing was a retaliation for Ley’s criticism of the Sen government. With some pointing to Hun To, the premier’s nephew, as the intellectual architect of the murder. Three years later the truth behind Kem Ley’s murder has not been established and his family are still waiting for justice, in July 2019 twenty four international organisations signed a declaration calling for a thorough investigation of the killing.
Over 2 million people attended Ley’s funeral in Phnom Penh, making it one of the largest non-state funerals in history.