When Kem Ley’s murderer was asked for his name, he offered a chilling sobriquet: ‘Chuob Samlap’ – literally, ‘Meet Kill.’

  • Sim Sovandy, a Buddhist monk, performs a religious ceremony at the Caltex gas shortly after Kem Ley’s shooting on July 10, 2016. (John Vink/Magnum)
  • Kem Ley, 43, had become a popular advocate of Cambodia's rural poor.



This is no country for decent and outspoken men. On 10 July, at just after half-past eight in the morning, Dr Kem Ley, a prominent Cambodian political commentator and grassroots organiser, was shot and killed while drinking coffee at a Caltex service station in downtown Phnom Penh. The bullets were fired from close range by an unemployed former soldier who was picked up in the street by police shortly afterwards, blood streaming from his head after being pummelled by an angry mob. When asked for his name, the sinewy forty-three-year-old offered a chilling sobriquet: “Chuob Samlap” — literally, “Meet Kill.” Meanwhile, Kem Ley died almost instantly, sprawled backwards on the shiny mini-mart floor.

Kem Ley’s killing was striking for being so unexpected, yet so chillingly familiar. Violence has declined in Cambodian public life in recent years, but killings like this have stained the past quarter-century, rhyming in many of their specifics: high morning, a busy public place, the shots expertly and lethally placed. When Mr Meet Kill met his target, and delivered on his deadly promise, Cambodia lost another from its small pool of free-thinkers and consensus-breakers. Born in the coup-year of 1970, in rural Takeo province, Kem Ley was a father of four, with a fifth on the way. He was the coordinator of Khmer for Khmer, a grassroots advocacy network that he established in 2014, after becoming disillusioned with the country’s main opposition faction, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). Kem Ley had recently registered a new political party of his own, and was quickly gaining stature throughout the Cambodian countryside, a result of his frequent travels and outspoken commentaries on Khmer-language radio. I would be conceited to pretend any close or easy familiarity, but Kem Ley was always open and available for a conversation about the ills of his country’s politics.

In the weeks leading up to his assassination, the slain advocate posted on his Facebook page a series of “fables”: short prose tales that anatomised his country’s psychology of obedience to the powerful. These critiques drew on a rich vocabulary of allegory and metaphor. They were cutting and incisive — and all the more effective for not naming names. One such fable, dated 2 July, just a few weeks before Kem Ley’s death, told the story of a man named Uncle Sao, who works in the garden of his boss, Uncle Sok.

One day, the sun is shining very strongly and Uncle Sao starts watering the flowers, leading his boss to come and praise him, and to be very happy that his gardener knows how to water the flowers so well. Only a moment later, it starts raining very heavily, so the gardener decides to stop watering the garden. The boss comes back to look again and, not seeing the gardener watering the flowers this time, shouts out: “Why haven’t you continued to water the flowers?” The servant says, “It’s raining, boss! No need to water them now.” The boss scolds him: “If you’re afraid of getting wet, why not bring an umbrella to cover you as you water the garden?” Uncle Sao, afraid of his boss’s power, continues watering the garden, even though it’s raining so heavily. In a society that concentrates power on individuals  without the ability to think deeply when it comes to  administration, even when the orders are wrong and endowed with danger, it does not matter. The people in the system must follow, whether the rain pours or not.

In mid-July, ten days after the assassination, I left Cambodia for the United States, after eight years of living and working in this beautiful but troubled country. It is not a time to inspire optimism. Stung by its sharp loss of support at national elections in 2013, Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) have doubled down on the old strategies: dispensing patronage and gifts while arresting critics, dishing out court summonses, and in general creating an atmosphere of fear and foreboding. Since mid-2015 the government has jailed more than twenty people, including opposition parliamentarians, human rights activists and land rights campaigners. Kem Sokha, the deputy president of the country’s main opposition party, the CNRP, remained holed up in the party’s headquarters in Phnom Penh, accused of “procuring prostitution” in connection with an alleged affair with a hairdresser half his age. Meanwhile, his colleague, CNRP President Sam Rainsy, Hun Sen’s longtime bête noire, is stranded in self-exile overseas—his third enforced timeout in the past decade—facing his own raft of thin legal charges.

As Cambodia moves towards its next national election in 2018, it is becoming increasingly clear that Hun Sen and his old comrades in the CPP have little intention of ever giving up power willingly. Ten days before his daylight killing, I called up Kem Ley and asked him for his political diagnosis. He was pessimistic. With the ruling party locked in a struggle to maintain its “political life” in the face of rising opposition, he said Cambodia was unlikely to see the sort of breakthrough that Myanmar experienced at its landmark election in November, when Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won a sweeping victory.  “No,” he said, “this will not be like [Myanmar].”



If I was asked to choose an epitaph for my time in Cambodia, it would be hard to better the imperishable French phrase, attributed to the nineteenth-century French critic and journalist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr: “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” The more things change, the more they stay the same. It’s not that things aren’t changing in Cambodia. In quantitative terms, the shift has been dramatic. Under Hun Sen, the country has experienced the longest period of peace, or lack-of-war, in the country’s modern history. The economy has approached take-off, and Phnom Penh has become a boomtown fretted with light. In line with this, grievances and expectations are also growing. Since the early 1990s, the patronage-based political system headed by Hun Sen has started to provoke a strong blowback from the Cambodian public. Requiring ever-greater amounts of patronage to renew the loyalty of powerful tycoons, military commanders and other heavies, the system is fast approaching the outer limits of both the country’s resources—the amount of land left to sell, the number of trees left to cut—and the limits of what the Cambodian people are willing to endure.

As ordinary people have become more connected via technologies like Facebook, they have acquired a sense of shared grievance that had previously been pre-empted by Hun Sen’s Jovian personality cult and the CPP’s near-monopoly control on the Khmer-language media. Compounding this is the fact that the Cambodian electorate skews heavily towards the young: a new generation that is more educated, more connected and more demanding that any of those that survived Cambodia’s recent cataclysms. Indeed, those who will vote for the first time in 2018 were born after their country’s cycle of civil wars came to an end in the late 1990s. This is a generation for whom the dark days of the Khmer Rouge — and the CPP’s much-trumpeted role in toppling the regime in 1979 — are distant history.

It’s tempting to assume that the quantitative tension of the current political moment will resolve into something qualitatively more democratic. Demographic and technological change has empowered  oppositional currents in Cambodian society, and  according to the standard liberal orthodoxy, a step away from authoritarian rule is always a step towards democracy. But if history offers any straightforward lesson, it’s that the country is stubborn to this kind of  easy understanding, and resists analysis within Western political frameworks. Cambodia in the democratic era is a graveyard of outside assumptions.

In Western countries today, mainstream views of social and political development rest on two related articles of faith. The first is the idea of steady human progress over time. Like advances in the sciences, political and moral gains are seen as cumulative, building on and consolidating previous gains, despite the inevitable drawbacks. For all its secular pretensions, this is an idea, like Marxism, with deep roots in the Christian past: it is the idea of redemption in history. The second idea, popularised by authors such as Daniel Bell in the 1950s, assumes that as modernisation takes hold, it will produce a convergence towards a single political model. In Bell’s case, this meant that the Soviet Union and its satellites would evolve to become like the advanced industrial societies of the West. This idea gained fresh currency once the Soviet behemoth started its slow collapse in the late 1980s, when the likes of Francis Fukuyama declared the “end of history” as liberal democracy emerged triumphant. As the British philosopher John Gray has argued, Fukuyama took a contingent historical event (the implosion of the Soviet empire) and interpreted it as a universal law of history. Political progress was not only seen to be cumulative, like technology; it also posited liberal democracy, individual rights and free markets as the natural endpoint of this process of political development.

Cambodia in the democratic era is a graveyard of outside assumptions.

Today, despite history’s bloody persistence in the 1990s, this remains the operating assumption of Western policy-making elites on both sides of politics, from Tony Blair and Samantha Power to Michael Ignatieff and Paul Wolfowitz. The language often differs: “regime change,” for instance, is a few grades to the right of “humanitarian intervention,” even though they often describe the same thing. Likewise, Europeans tend to emphasise human rights and legal processes, while Americans focus more on democracy and electoral ones. But these shifts in register take place around a central assumption: that an idealised form of Western government is something like the natural resting state of human societies. Without artificial restrictions—dictators, say, or others of wicked intent — democracy will effloresce.

This assumption was sweet in the air on 23 October 1991, when the Paris Peace Agreements were signed and Cambodia was loosed with a crack into the democratic dawn. The treaty, signed by Cambodia’s four armed factions, aimed to end the long civil war, disarm and demobilise the four factions and let refugees return home. This being the early 1990s, the treaty also aimed to create, from Cambodia’s churned-over ashes, a liberal democratic state—a Denmark of the Far East. To implement its ambitious terms, Paris created the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia, or UNTAC, which arrived in Cambodia in early 1992, along with thousands of aid workers and foreign NGO staff—the whole sprawling apparatus of what Alex de Waal has termed the “humanitarian international.”

Paris and UNTAC set the stage for a spectacular, albeit slow-motion, collision between two incompatible worldviews: a liberal one that saw human history as a constant process of moral and political improvement, and a Cambodian one, rooted deep, in which progress represented a mere temporary respite from perpetual cycles of chaos. The story of this collision has been told many times: how the United Nations successfully organised elections in May 1993 that Prime Minister Hun Sen’s CPP, in power since 1979, lost to the royalist faction Funcinpec; how the CPP issued threats and blustered its way into an equal-share of power in a coalition government; how the party marginalised Funcinpec policy-makers and eventually ousted their vain leader Prince Norodom Ranariddh in a violent coup de force in July 1997; how Hun Sen squeezed out a questionable victory-by-ballot at the next year’s flawed election; how he learnt to manipulate Western donor governments, adopting their language of “good governance” and  universal values; how Cambodian institutions remained a façade, behind which power worked in the traditional way: through a dense network of ksae, or strings, of patron-client ties, a fluid and organic currency of power that bound the country’s political, business, and military elites into a close pact of mutually-assured enrichment; how Hun Sen eventually extended his control over most of Cambodian politics and society, through a combination of force, bribery and muscular charisma, and established himself as the uncrowned king of his own sand-founded reign.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. But the faith remains. The high hopes that were heaped on Cambodia in the 1990s have reappeared today, at another time of rapid change. With a tectonic shift in demographics, the much-hoped-for “transition” is again nigh, supercharged by Facebook. One of the lingering effects of Paris and the UNTAC mission was to make Cambodia a global cause, a birthplace of Hegelian dreams, with more elevated expectations than neighbouring countries like Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. In the utterances of global human rights activists and others in the humanitarian imperium, Cambodia has always been a special case: it is the democracy that should have been, but never was, but might soon be again — if only we get it right this time.

But liberal diagnoses of Cambodia focus so much attention on the ought that they often forget to deal with the is. Cambodia ought to be more fair and democratic—few would disagree. The government ought, also, to respect its very fine constitution, rich with rights and freedom-guarantees, and let people speak their mind without fear of violent attack. There are many other things it ought to do: this is the hollow language of the human rights press release, and the raison d’être of the whole global architecture of UN treaties and committees, which exists to constantly remind the government what these things are. But pointing out the ought is a pointless exercise if one does not ask, as Bill Clinton might have phrased it, what the reality of is is.

After eight years of working in Cambodia, and a further three or four observing its cycles from afar, here’s what I’ve learned of the reality. Firstly, the rule of law and an impartial judiciary, the foundation of a democratic society, are the end products of successful liberal systems, not the beginnings.

There’s no plan; they can’t be reverse-engineered, like a Rolex watch or a downed piece of American military technology. To be sure, a successful country’s institutions can be reproduced in a country like Cambodia. You can easily declare them on paper: photocopies of posthistory. But there’s no inherent magic in institutions, to magnetise the people that fill them. Secondly, there’s good reason to think the causality actually flows in the opposite direction. Like sponges absorbing sea-water, institutions take on the weight of the cultural, social and political conditions in which they are immersed. Everything politically exalted tends downwards into the deep water of local customs and relations of power.

Cambodian political culture has never tolerated opposition. As the scholars Trudy Jacobsen and Martin Stuart-Fox argued in a 2013 paper*, political power here stems not from a popular mandate, but from the fragile perception of bunn, or Buddhist merit. This is built and expressed through ostentatious displays of wealth and power, by feeding patronage networks and by expressions of charismatic oratory. Those with superior bunn, and the wealth that is its worldly manifestation, are perceived to hold their power as if by right. “In a very real sense,” Jacobsen and Stuart-Fox write, “bunn determines destiny.” In this pre-modern scheme of power, it is no surprise that criticisms often provoke violent reactions. To question a leader has traditionally been to question his merit, and hence his right to rule. This, naturally, is a slight that cannot be tolerated.

Today, as the Cambodian multi-party system approaches its silver jubilee, the concept of a “loyal  opposition” remains a contradiction in terms, a phrase whose two halves attempt to bridge an irreconcilable gap. In its history, the country has never experienced a peaceful transfer of power from one regime to another. No Cambodian leader, CPP or otherwise, has ever admitted defeat in an election, let alone ceded power to the victors. Phay Siphan, the attack-dog spokesman of the Cambodian Council of Ministers, expressed this view clearly in response to a recent question from the Cambodia Daily about Sam Rainsy’s international campaign to bring sanctions against the CPP government. “He does not seem to belong to Cambodia. He does not want Cambodian prosperity,” Phay Siphan said. “He is very different than other opposition leaders in the world.” But to be “loyal” in this sense would be to give up being “opposition” at all. It would be to be like Uncle Sao, watering his boss’s plants as the rain pours down.

The rule of law and an impartial judiciary, the foundation of a democratic society, are the end products of successful liberal systems, not the beginnings.

Hun Sen and his political opponents differ on just about every point, but they are united by their identification of their own faction as the essential expression of the national interest, congruent with all that is good and truly Khmer, and of their opponents as fundamentally illegitimate and treasonous. For the CPP, the opposition CNRP is a satrapy of Western powers, bent on wrecking the hard-won gains of peace and political stability. For the opposition, the CPP is steadily delivering Cambodia into the jaws of extinction, abetted by its old backer, the demon of the national imagination: Vietnam. (Hence, Cambodia National Rescue Party.)

There are many reasons for Hun Sen’s longevity, but one of the most important is that he has dealt with his country on the basis of how it is, rather than some vision of how it ought to be. Born in August 1952, in a village on the Mekong River in the backwater of Kampong Cham province, Hun Sen came of age just as Cambodia was slipping into the abyss. In service to the Khmer Rouge, and then to the Vietnamese-backed government that replaced it, he proved himself a survivor, rugged yet flexible, with few ideological commitments. Over thirty-one years in power he has tailored his political message to an intimate understanding of Khmer social hierarchies and his people’s instinctive aversion to chaos. He is also, by instinct or cultivation, alert to the cosmic dimensions of power.

Hun Sen has succeeded by reinforcing, through violence and rough-edged populist appeal, the way things already are and have supposedly always have been—the cultural reflexes of deference, hardened during decades of conflict. Western governments, and the opposition leaders who appeal to them for support,  carry an additional burden. They are always forced to  square ideological commitments—to democratisation, to respect for human rights—with Cambodian realities. They struggle to fit the ought into the is. It is a noble enterprise. But it’s no surprise that Hun Sen always comes out on top.



The more things change, the more they stay the same. The deep wisdom of the old axiom lies in the fact that it eschews straight roads in human affairs. It sees the loops and patterns, the deep-down reflexes. There’s no knowing, as yet, what the social, economic and generational shift in Cambodia will produce. But the convergence with Western democratic models that Bell and Fukuyama believed was under way in the world has not happened, and there’s little likelihood that it will happen in Cambodia, or in Southeast Asia, any time soon. Cambodian history, if it suggests anything, suggests that whatever comes around next is likely to be a reiteration, or a series of variations, on what came before.

The main opposition to Hun Sen, the CNRP, itself represents a mélange of past currents in Cambodian politics: the patrician inheritance of the Democrat Party, before it was sidelined by Prince Norodom Sihanouk in the 1950s; the ethnic nationalism of Lon Nol, whose foreshortened tenure in the early 1970s saw massacres of Vietnamese; and the liberal boilerplate of the foreign powers on which it has staked its political fortunes since the early 1990s. Like Sihanouk’s rule, and Hun Sen’s, the party of Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha still operates along essentially personal lines.

A sudden change in the political situation could conceivably lead to deeper democratisation. But in the near term it is probably more likely to trigger a resurgence in exclusive ethno-nationalism—“Cambodia for the Khmers”—or a period of chaos as patronage networks collapse and the system is forced to reconstitute itself from the tangle. The rise of Facebook has opened up new avenues of account, but may also allow Hun Sen to produce a technologically fortified version of his long authoritarian reign. Whatever comes about in Cambodia, it will be an outgrowth its own internal political dynamics, which remain governed by the all-or-nothing dyad represented by the CPP and its opponents: support of the cosmic order, or a desire to tear it down and erect an alternative one.

Reflecting on the life and work of Kem Ley, it becomes clear the extent to which he was a transgressor in this scheme. In the obvious sense this is undeniable: Kem Ley was outspoken, and it’s obvious that someone in power feared his example. But it’s also possible that he made himself a target by refusing to pick a side. In the Cambodian political culture sketched above, opposition is easy to categorise. It opposes; it exists “against.” It thus sits in some sort of comprehensible relation to the reigning consensus. Here is something that Hun Sen and the CPP can grasp: an opponent whose stance has hard edges, if only because it is the exact negative and inverse of one’s own. But Kem Ley, an equal-opportunity critic, didn’t conform to the categories of Cambodian politics. He represented the possibility of feather-edges and gradations of perspective. He was an aberration, a category error. When the system tried to process him, it threw up blue screens.

On Sunday, 24 July, hundreds of thousands of  Cambodians accompanied Kem Ley’s body on its final, seventy-kilometre journey home to Takeo. It was the country’s largest display of public mourning  since the death of Norodom Sihanouk in October 2012, an oceanic outpouring of grief for a slain hero. Kem Ley hadn’t figured out a clear road to democracy for Cambodia—that’s probably a question without an answer. What he did do was show that there was an alternative to the country’s current destructive dynamic: an alternative cycle, perhaps; a less fearful habit of mind that could at least permit the people to stop watering when it begins to rain.

Published in the Mekong Review, August-October 2016.