Cambodian Authorities Don’t Want You Asking: Who Killed Chea Vichea?

Cambodian Authorities Don

Six years after his death, the murdered union leader still agitates.

On January 22, 2004, leader of the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia Chea Vichea was shot in the head and chest as he waited at a newsstand near Wat Langka in Phnom Penh. The bright celebrations of Chinese New Year were halted as garment factory workers, a constituency of over 300,000 people at the time (mostly young women), mourned the sudden loss of their most ardent advocate. Not long beforehand, Vichea had fought for and won a raise in minimum pay for garment workers. Approximately 20% of the country lives off these wages, and the union leader was widely revered. When police failed to make any progress after several days, people began to demand justice, and two men were promptly arrested, tried, and sentenced to 20 years in prison each for the murder. They were released again last year when evidence had mounted indicating their innocence.

In early 2004, US filmmaker Bradley Cox lived nearby the Wat Langka newsstand. He had been directing a documentary about the recent national election, and happened to get Vichea on tape before he died. “Vichea had received a death threat just a week before the election,” Cox explains. “It was the last video interview he did. I didn’t realize until later how important it would be.”

Cox received a call when Vichea was shot, was on the scene ten minutes later, and turned his camera toward the body of the fallen labor leader. Cox began tracking the story even as bloodstains grew fresh across Vichea’s well-pressed white shirt. The results of his efforts, a 55-minute documentary from Loud Mouth Films called Who Killed Chea Vichea? debuted at Cannes this spring, and has been well received at festivals across the US since.

The film doesn’t answer the titular question, but Cambodian officials have banned it anyway. The information minister told Reuters a few weeks ago that Cox’s film “intends to accuse the government of murder.” The film has also been labeled an illegal import, and authorities have reportedly vowed to prevent screenings “wherever they are held.”

One screening was attempted on May 1, International Labor Day, at the spot of Vichea’s murder. Policemen had been tipped to the event and stood waiting while unionists set up the screen. Then the screens were torn down. “Thankfully there were no injuries,” says the film’s producer Rich Garella from his home in Philadelphia.

Yet this is not simply a story about a PR-minded government overly concerned about its image. The film raises issues vital to Cambodia’s human rights history and labor rights record. The ire it’s causing authorities sends a strong signal to labor activists, as well as the opposition party he was affiliated with – the Sam Rainsy party.

In fact, the film is about political maneuvering and corruption in Cambodia more than it is about the country’s stilted labor movement. Prior to the election, Vichea had threatened a strike if the government used its famous strong-arm tactics in support of the ruling party. Death threats followed, but no support was offered Vichea. “The police told him the threat came from very high up in the government, that they couldn’t protect him and urged him to leave the country,” Cox says.

In the interview Vichea gave Cox before his death, which appears in the film, the labor leader explains why. “If I afraid, like I die,” he says, in the clunky English favored in the country.

This statement has been taken up as a slogan by the Free Trade Union, which has since seen the murder of two other union leaders – both, like Vichea, by two men who raced away on motorbikes. Vichea’s brother, Chea Mony, has now taken over as president of the Free Trade Union.

“The elimination of Vichea removed a political competitor to the CPP,” Garella explains. A former managing editor of the Cambodia Daily, a paper that clashes regularly with CPP’s Hun Sen, Prime Minister of Cambodia, Garella sensed the film would attract the rage of the country’s leader.

“Young women and men who admired Vichea were being activated by his ideas, and they were bringing those ideas back to the countryside, to everywhere in the countryside where 85% of Cambodians live. Imagine a family, barely sustaining itself – all they know is that there’s a new well with a sign on it, ‘Gift from Hun Sen.’ They need the water. They’re grateful.”

“Then their daughter comes back from Phnom Penh with new information, different ideas, crystallized by an inspirational union leader,” Garella adds. While unions are common in the country, few were, or have ever been, as effective at protecting and advancing worker’s rights as the Free Trade Union before 2004. “Now multiply that story by 250,000 daughters and sons, all over the country. That’s a threat.”

The film is threatening. Especially now, as the Free Trade Union again faces massive resistance to raising the minimum wage of garment factory workers, which currently hovers at around half of a minimum living wage in the capital city.

“Brad is a pit bull,” Garella says of the director when asked how he became involved in producing the film. “I came on board in 2007 when I found out that Brad had been following the story for years and had amazing footage and an amazing story to go with it. These atrocities happen a lot in Cambodia, and finally someone had really stayed with one. That almost never happens – usually each shocking event is erased by the next.”

Cox, too, is aware that the film has the potential to impact the political situation at large in Cambodia. “Most movies about Cambodia focus on the Khmer Rouge era. This is one of the few to concentrate on the political situation as it exists today.”

Garella agrees. “Most Cambodians get their news about Cambodia by rumor. Especially in the countryside, they’re starved for real information – and they’re starved by design of the government. The government apparently feels that an informed population is a serious threat.”

Yet stories of corruption, malevolence, violence, abuse – even murder – are so common in Cambodia, it’s easy to become habituated. The ruling party had, Cox and Garella’s film contends, and with the case of Chea Vichea, may have been caught red-handed.

“What really sets this case apart,” Garella contends, “is that here the Cambodian government found out that it stepped across the line.” The line, in this case, was framing two innocent men for the murder of the popular labor leader.

Who Killed Chea Vichea? relays their stories, their alibis – Cox even tracks down fellow Chinese New Year party-goers who claim to be with the accused on the day of the murder. Viewers are rewarded to discover that whoever killed Chea Vichea, it likely wasn’t Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, the two men arrested, tried, and convicted for the crime.

“The Cambodian government made a big mistake – when they framed these two guys, they cornered themselves. Now what do they do? Do they clear the guys? Do they find someone else to frame? Do they suddenly ‘find’ the real killers? We find them a very difficult situation,” Garella explains. “And then we put them under the microscope.”