Kem Ley’s Final Fables

In the two weeks before political analyst Kem Ley was shot dead in a gas station convenience store last weekend, he posted 19 political “jokes” to his Facebook page, having announced plans to write 99 and then publish them in a book at the end of this year. The final joke, commenting on the way a small group can control a population through killing people and spreading fear, was posted the day before he was murdered.

Most of the jokes, each posted with a photograph, use animals or oddly named villagers to tell their stories, but are nonetheless timely commentaries on political affairs. They grew popular not only for their droll punchlines but for the way in which Kem Ley provided searing criticisms of Cambodia’s political leaders in a way that he could not have if he named them. The following is a selection of six, translated from Khmer to English.

Kem Ley speaks to disgruntled CNRP supporters during a forum in Kompong Speu province in October 2014. (Alex Willemyns/The Cambodia Daily
Kem Ley speaks to disgruntled CNRP supporters during a forum in Kompong Speu province in October 2014. (Alex Willemyns/The Cambodia Daily)

Fable 3: Who do the Vietnamese vote for?

June 28, 4:18 p.m. (Posted with a photograph of him and traditional musician Kong Nai)

Three Vietnamese women are arguing about elections. The first Vietnamese woman, whose name is Teuy but who goes by “Phalla,” says it’s so hard to do business these days and that her younger brother has been here for three months without getting a job. The second Vietnamese woman, whose name is Phuong but who goes by “Chenda,” says: “Cambodia’s leaders are too busy arguing, and business is hard no matter where you go. I vote for our party [the ruling CPP] and they say we will be happy, but we still can’t do business. My sister just came from Vietnam and her coffee and Banh Hoy sandwiches won’t sell.”

The third Vietnamese woman, whose name is Bin but who they call “Bopha,” starts arguing back to the two other women, and angrily says: “It’s because we voted for our party that so many Vietnamese are coming here in increasingly large numbers, and that’s why it’s so hard to do business. The Cambodians don’t really know how to do business, but if we vote for our party, more Vietnamese are going to come and the job market is going to get more crowded, and it only gets harder to sell. Before, the fish I would catch would fill up the trap and would be about 20 kg a day, but now a whole day on the water won’t even get 5 kg.”

She continues: “There’s so many Vietnamese shops, buses and scavengers now that it’s made the market crowded and business difficult. We have to vote for their party [the opposition CNRP] next time. They’ll stop all the new Vietnamese who come illegally and who can’t speak Khmer from coming, and because we’ve been here so long and speak Khmer clearly, they won’t kick us out, and it will be so much easier for us to do business.

“There will be so many jobs, and none of the present problems!”


No Number: The Fish That Swims Downstream Is a Dead Fish

July 2, 2016, 8:56 a.m. (Posted with a photograph of him and CPP lawmaker Chheang Vun)

A Mekong fish, if it just swims downstream, will die, but it might delay its death by swimming down the length of the river by taking a long time, until eventually one day—if it’s not caught in a fisherman’s trap—it still will surely enter the ocean and die. In this grave case, the fish that swims the length of the Mekong before falling into the ocean still has to cross the Chrey Thom or the Ka’am Samnor checkpoints in Kandal province before it falls across into the Vietnamese river and into the Vietnamese ocean.

Accordingly, if you’re a fish, you have to learn how to turn and swim against the current, and if you’re a human, you have to be able to choose the correct path to take—even if that path is not the one you that you like according to your own desires and wishes. Those do not matter. The freshwater fish cannot live in the ocean, and vice versa.


Fable 9: Out of the gardener and his boss, who is smarter?

July 2, 1:20 p.m. (Posted with a photograph of him and Soy Sopheap, director of the Deum Ampil news outlet)

Uncle Sao is a servant at Uncle Sok’s house. 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.

The rain only waters the plants if the boss orders that to be the case.


Fable 11: You’ve got this much already, what more do you want?

July 3, 11:11 a.m. (Posted with a photograph of children sitting outside in their village)

In a little village, there were many prominent people with important jobs festively gathering together to have a ceremony for a couple of high-ranking people. A high-ranking man named 570 says: “Brothers and sisters, everyone, come together and be happy. Please don’t think too much or care too much about anything—just be happy and be together. We have this much already, what more could we want?”

An aunty named The Farm’s Gone starts crying and announces: “Sir, after 1979, me and my siblings had a farm of a few hectares, we never owed anyone money, we had fish behind the house for food and we had firewood behind the house for cooking rice. We had our children and grandchildren nearby, and if we farmed for a year, we could eat for two years—but nowadays we’re empty-handed.”

The high-ranking man fires back: “Sister, you just know how to talk…. Are you from the opposition party?”

An uncle named The Victim gets up and mirrors the woman’s words: “We are empty-handed, because my farmland and my siblings’ farmland in the village all belongs to Uncle Da [Acleda bank], Uncle Na [Sathapana bank], Uncle K [AMK microfinance institution] and to Mr. Microfinance. It’s all theirs now. There’s no hope of ever getting it back. Even worse, if we farm for a whole year, we don’t even have enough pay back the cost of the land, and the interest payments, and the cost to rent the plows for harvest.”

Mourners pay their respects to Kem Ley at Wat Chas pagoda in Phnom Penh on Monday. (Satoshi Takahashi)
Mourners pay their respects to Kem Ley at Wat Chas pagoda in Phnom Penh on Monday. (Satoshi Takahashi)

Uncle 570 scolds him too: “You only know how to talk, so you just go on talking!” “You have this much already, what more could you want?”

Then a child named Smart who lives in the village and attends primary school stands up to express himself: “Uncle, your car is so beautiful. Your necktie is so beautiful. Your wife is so young. I also want that much!” So another high-ranking person named Uncle Five Villas butts in: “Hey, it’s nothing, just wait for our party to help you. Now we’re building schools, roads, hospitals, bridges, and so on. We win elections to help you have easy lives!” “We have this much, what more could we want?”

A student named Knows Clearly—who studied in Phnom Penh—has an idea, and says: “Hey, Uncle Villas, I studied in Phnom Penh, and lived in a pagoda, and I want to have villas like you, uncle! You have five big villas, what more do you want?” The student continues: “You’ve been a high-ranking official for so long, what more could you want? You’ve held power for this long already, what more do you want? Corrupt for this long already, what’s left to corrupt? The forests are almost gone, so why keep logging them? The Vietnamese have almost filled up the country, so why let even more pour in?”

The ceremony ends, and they start dancing the Nhi Keng Choeung dance.


Fable 13: The king of the bees and the fly

July 5, 11:46 a.m. (Posted with a photograph of deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha)

Meeting a crisis while fighting over a garland of flowers during a transitional time, the King of the Bees and a fly fall into a deep pot that is difficult to escape. The fly and the King of the Bees start talking inside the pot to find a way out and be free like everyone else. The fly named Smart is a winged creature but has no stinger or venom, and tells the King Bee: “We need to jump up on the walls of the pot bit by bit, until we reach the spout of the pot, and then we can fly out.” This fly tries to think by using its deep thought, intelligence and cunning​ in an honest and frank way, and is gentle but persistent and never makes others hurt by its actions. The fly has happiness and enjoys its life and is greatly respected and praised by its friends. The fly becomes a role model for others.

As for the King of the Bees, a.k.a “Uncle Strong,” it shouts out: “I have a stinger, I have poison, and there’s nothing that can stop me. I have to destroy everything if any creature ever opposes me. I have to use my strength and my poison. Even if I have to spend everything I have, that’d be OK, provided that I win, provided I am happy, and provided my brothers and sisters and children get happiness. Even if people must die—let them die. Also, whoever it is, if I am made unhappy by someone, they can’t be happy either.”

A helper named the White Pigeon [the international community] arrives at the pot and says: “My group can help you; I can lay down a ladder to help you. Please climb it and come to safety.” But the King of the Bees threatens the White Pigeon and makes it afraid by irresponsibly shouting: “I don’t need any help—it’s not me who’s going to die! I have to destroy this pot, even if I have to invest everything into the effort!”

The cronies of the King of the Bees react with praise and start fawning on him by saying: “That’s right! Very good! All hail! Great thinking! Yeah, we have to break this whole pot! Just wait and see how strong he is!” Finally, the King Bee stings the bottom of the claypot, he stings the walls of the claypot, he stings the spout of the claypot, and uses all of his venom until none is left and he has no more energy. Breathing like a cricket, he falls down and dies with the most rotten reputation and honor in the whole garden.

Remember the poet Krom Ngoy’s words:

You rely on rudeness, you rely on shrewdness, you rely on aggression, you rely on malice

You rely on axes, you rely on knifes, you rely on your legs and you rely on your hands

You rely on fighting, you rely on kicking, you rely on imprisonment

You rely on the guillotine


Fable 19: The garden of savage animals

July 9, 3:46 p.m. (The final joke, posted with a photograph of Kem Ley in a village with friends)

In the garden that they call the Garden of the Political Animals, there are animals of all kinds living together in a disorderly manner, including lions, tigers, cows, buffaloes, horses, chickens, ducks, sparrows, turtle doves, and many other species.

In one corner of the garden, there are so many trees with so much fruit, and there is so much food and desserts to be enjoyed. There’s abundance. But in other places, there’s really not so much food to eat at all. The more savage animals—the cobras, tigers and the lions, and so on—hold a meeting to look for tricks to intimidate the other animals in the garden to be too worried and scared to go to that part of the garden. They’re afraid that if other animals got together and ventured there, they’d eat all the good food.

After the meeting ends, some of these animals come out and announce: “Oh, our dear members from the various animal herds, do not go to that corner of the garden, because it has very savage monsters who will eat you up each and every time!”

As for the lion, it announces that, over in that corner, there are cages left by the hunters who always catch animals and turn them into food, and it’s so easy for them to get us. The cobra pipes over in that corner, there’s a very tall waterfall that could cause us to fall down if we’re not careful. They would die without ever being reborn.

All of the herds of animals—especially the more gentle animals and the very good animals, and the animals from the countryside who provide so much value to society—hear this news and start to worry. They do not have the courage to go over to the corner and instead try their best to live in the more quiet areas of the regular forest.

The chicken says it is satisfied living in the small forest where it has freedom, rather than living in the big forest where there are tigers and other savage animals.

A few of the gentle animals, like the cows, horses and goats, try going over to the corner of the garden, but the ferocious animals mercilessly eat them up to maintain all the news of fear—you kill one in order to scare a thousand! Because of this situation, it causes the animals, and especially the more virtuous animals, to be afraid of going there.

The cow says: “Hey, I’m happy to keep serving the gentle humans rather than going over there where there’s so much misfortune. If you don’t get caught in a trap, you’re going to be killed by a savage animal.” As for the really ferocious animals, like the tiger, the lion, and the cobra, and so on, they gather together in the corner to eat the delicious food and to try to maintain their control over the place by using their strength and abilities.

The lion, with much more strength than all the others, tells the ferocious animals: “We’re stronger than them, so we have to control the whole garden! And the places that have a lot of food, we must control them completely. If you want food, wait and we can carve it up!”

A year later, there is now no one listening to the elderly lion, and the tiger takes over control for a while, issuing an order that: “We must not let anyone destroy us—in the event that anyone tries to oppose us, we have to catch them, cage them, and kill them.”

A little while later again, the tiger has lost all of its teeth, but the cobra has grown increasingly ferocious and has come to control the garden—continuously and unceasingly, this garden is controlled and managed by ferocious animals.

The gentle animals that are unendingly injured and killed hold a meeting together and one says: “Brothers and sisters, so many of us have been killed. The fact that the good animals, the gentle animals, and the animals who provide the value to society have not joined together, and don’t dare stand up, and don’t join together to challenge for that place, and only ever gather to be worried like we do nowadays, means that all the good food, all the concerns, all the things to care about and all the problems are still controlled, managed and organized by the savage animals and forever and always will be.”

Humans have intelligence, are able to learn a lot, and have the ability to think deeply. It doesn’t have to be like the story above.

[email protected]

© 2016, The Cambodia Daily. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced in print, electronically, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without written permission.