At press time, Who Killed Chea Vichea?, an award-winning documentary film which investigates the 2003 assassination of trade union leader Chea Vichea, was scheduled to be shown at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights headquarters on Friday. In the morning, it was cancelled. The film has screened in 20 countries, at dozens of film festivals and has been aired on US TV, but in Cambodia some officials have said it is banned. Rich Garella, producer of the film, was to hold a Q&A session after the screening, and Dave Welsh, country director of the Solidarity Center, was slated to speak about the international trade union situation. Daniel Quinlan talked to Garella about what the 10th anniversary of the slaying means..
What was it about Chea Vichea that made him so special?
He was incorruptible. He was tirelessly working. His single-minded focus is something that’s quite rare in Cambodia. He had an ability to speak to people that was almost entrancing.
Do you think the killing was a successful political act?
In many ways the killing of Chea Vichea was a successful political act. It’s simply not true that every person is replaceable and the regime here knows that. Vichea was a very special personality. He had an enormous personal magnetism, he galvanised the workers in this huge industrial sector representing mostly young women from all over the country, and in that, the movement he was building was a political threat. The loss of Chea Vichea, while it may have made some people aware of the overall political situation, meant the loss of someone who really had unique abilities to galvanise the population.
What made Chea Vichea such a threatening figure for the government?
Chea Vichea as a leader of garment workers was representing an industry that, at about 400,000 workers at the time, represents a huge segment of the population of young women between 16 and 25. That means that these young women are coming into the cities potentially learning about Chea Vichea and, when he was alive, actually listening to Chea Vichea and bringing information back to their villages that their parents, their brothers, their cousins, might never have heard. That’s what made Chea Vichea a threatening figure for the government and also what makes the film a threat to the government.
Ten years, no answers
How much work went into making the film?
There were several years of filming, mostly by the director Bradley Cox who did an incredible job of tracking down the facts around this case, tirelessly following every lead as far as it went. After that we were producing editing, finding funding, doing all kinds of legal work, raising money. It’s a massive endeavour to produce an hour-long film but we did it because we felt it represented one of the only times that a case would be followed from beginning to end. We felt this case represented a microcosm of Cambodian politics.
Do you think his killers will face justice?
I think the real perpetrators of this crime will face justice: depending on your beliefs, it might be in this world, or it might be in the next . . . What’s been happening here just in the past week with arrests of protesters and more extreme crackdowns is, I believe, a sign of extreme weakness and fear on the part of the regime.
What are the factors that have combined to create this tense political situation?
One is the garment workers themselves and their increasingly organised insistence on a higher minimum wage and respect for labour laws, the difficulty the regime seems to be having in keeping its own forces in line. Another factor is the increasing impatience of foreign donors with the situation that never seems to resolve itself, year after year. Then at the same time we have the 10th anniversary of the killing of Chea Vichea and I think that makes people more aware of the temporal dimension of this: that we can look 10 years back from now and see a very serious crime that was committed and that there still has been no justice. It’s a very sharp reminder that although there might be some superficial improvements in GDP and that kind of thing, the situation in Cambodia at its base level has not changed.
Is this screening a test for the government?
We run under the assumption that Cambodia as a country that has the rule of law and has freedom of expression enshrined in its constitution would allow that. Whether they allow it or not, we don’t know. It’s a test [to see] if the government here wants to respect the foundations on which it is supposedly based, and respect the rights of the people. Of course [if they do] they will do what any normal government in the world would do and not interfere at all.