The alleged shooting suspects Sok Samouen (left) and Bourn Samnang.
At first it sounded like just another peal of firecrackers celebrating Chinese New Year, but an instant later prominent trade union leader Chea Vichea fell to the ground, fatally wounded from shots to the chest, head and left wrist.
His killer, who had walked directly to Vichea and fired from close range with a handgun, took a few steps back and mounted a waiting motorcycle driven by another man. Both gunmen were described by witnesses as in their 20s, wearing civilian clothes of "city people" without masks or hats. They drove away from the busy strip of newstands on the corner of Sihanouk Boulevard and Pasteur Street around 9:15 am on January 22 leaving behind a brutal murder that would make headlines around the world.
The killing is the latest in a string of mostly-unsolved assassinations of high profile political figures that have rocked Phnom Penh and left union leaders and politicians fearing for their lives. Police yesterday produced two men they say are responsible for the murder but Bourn Samnang and Sok Samoeun say they were beaten until they confessed.
Tense scenes followed the shooting, with witnesses reporting an argument between the authorities who wanted to take the body for a post mortem and Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) members who thought there should be further investigation on-site.
"Everything that happened, it's like theatre," said MP Yim Sovann by phone on January 28, who was among the several SRP politicians advocating that the police leave the body.
Despite the protests of the SRP supporters, Vichea's body was loaded onto a flat bed police truck at about 10am and driven to Wat Preah Puth, near the Olympic Stadium 3 km away.
Hundreds of Chea Vichea's friends and relatives rallied at the pagoda, alarmed that the fire already burning for another cremation might be used for Vichea, said a human rights worker who did not want to be named. A tense scene ensured with Vichea's younger brother Chea Mony screaming, "He's not some dog, he's my brother" before the body was taken by family to the headquarters of the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia (FTUWKC), the organization Vichea co-founded in 1996 and presided over for the last three years.
Over the next three days thousands of people came to pay their last respects including opposition leader Sam Rainsy.
"I have seen over the last two weeks many dead bodies like Chea Vichea's and they were all supporters of democracy," said Rainsy, referring to recent provincial murders of SRP activists.
Chea Vichea is survived by his pregnant wife and two-year old daughter. He was regarded as the most outspoken of Cambodia's trade union leaders and was heavily involved in campaigning for the SRP during the last election. He was 40 years old but is often cited as being 36 because he lied about his age to avoid military service during the post-1979 civil war. He had received a medal of honour from King Norodom Sihanouk.
Chea Vichea's body at the newstand where he was shot.
For Vichea, threats and violence were nothing new. In 1997 he was among the many people injured in a grenade blast at the National Assembly that killed at least 12 protesters from the Khmer Nation Party, which later became the Sam Rainsy Party. Vichea was an early member of the SRP and maintained close ties.
On 1 May 2002 Vichea was beaten by a security guard during a protest outside a factory, requiring five stiches to the face. The guard was later sentenced in absentia to 14 months in jail and fined of one million riel. At the time Chea Vichea told Radio Free Asia, "I don't believe the guilty person will ever serve this sentence because he has very powerful backers who are generals."
Many people have linked his assassination to a text message he received exactly six months before his death, on a day he had been campaigning at a SRP rally. The message read, "A DOG I WILL KILL YOU 26 07 03 A SAMRANSY [sic]!!!??" Vichea's union alerted several human rights NGOs and according to FTUWKC secretary general Sum Samneang, police traced the sender's phone number to a senior official in the Ministry of Interior who supported the Cambodia People's Party (CPP).
When thePost dialled the number on January 26 a message said that incoming calls could not be received, a function commonly used by public phone booths.
At around the same time, just before last year's election, Samneang also received a message on his wife's phone that all of his activities were being carefully observed. Speaking from the FTUWKC office last Monday, Samneang said that Vichea took the advice of human rights organisations and went into hiding from July 28 until December of last year at a secret location.
Soon after coming out of hiding Chea Vichea was caught up in controversy again, this time involving a January 4 petition allegedly thumb-printed by thousands of garment workers concerned at "rumours" he and nine other union leaders had accepted bribes from factories.
Thousands of garment factory workers, many weeping, follow Vichea's coffin through the city streets.
The letter is linked to long-running union negotiations over wages for night workers. A coalition of ten labor unions wanted to cut the monthly nightshift salary from $80 to $52 while improving the enforcement of regular payment, in the hope that it would encourage factories to employ more workers.
According to Yun Rithy, the head of the Khmer Youth Union which opposed the cuts, the letter was sent to Prime Minister Hun Sen, several government ministries and international organizations including the Asian Development Bank and Oxfam. He insisted he did not write the letter but admitted the allegations were "just rumours", saying "if you want to know clearly about this you'll have to ask the workers."
Other trade union officials have dismissed the petition and its allegations.
Kong Tarith, senior program officer with the USAID-funded American Centre of International Labor Solidarity and former co-worker of Vichea's, said the letter was a ploy by Yun Rithy to attract members.
On Sunday January 25 at least 15,000 people, most of them garment factory workers, took part in a slow march from the FTUWKC office past the Independence Monument and to the front of Wat Botum in the biggest outpouring of grief and anger Cambodia has seen in recent years. Wearing black and white headbands saying "Chea the hero worker" and "Chea Vichea the founder of workers' freedom" and carrying 100 flower framed portraits of the slain leader, the procession was joined by opposition leader Sam Rainsy and Funcinpec secretary general Prince Norodom Sirivudh.
At the cremation site, trade union representatives, garment factory workers and political leaders read eulogies about Vichea, praising the improved salary and working conditions of garment factory workers that he worked to achieve.
In his speech, Prince Sirivudh quoted a statement made by King Norodom Sihanouk condemning the "assassinations, with a background that is unquestionably political."
Calls for political change were cheered by the mourners.
"If the government is not capable of discharging their responsibilities in arresting the real murderers, the head of the government must resign," said Men Nath, representative of Cambodian Watchdog Council.
But it was Jackson Cox, the country director of International Republican Institute who received the most enthusiastic response.
"You have a choice. You can let Vichea's death intimidate you, where you live in fear, letting the thugs win. Or you can let Vichea's life inspire you, where you can ensure that your children grow up in a very different Cambodia. The choice is yours," said Cox.
Vichea's two year old daughter, wearing a headband saying "Chea Vichea hero of the worker" at the funeral with her distraught mother (centre).
Many in the crowd wept openly as a representative of factory workers spoke through tears. Vichea's younger brother Chea Mony collapsed as he took to the podium and was rushed to the VIP tent to recover.
While many members of the SRP and Funcinpec opposition parties attended the funeral, there were no CPP officials sitting in the dignitaries' area. Organizers say that while no formal invitations were issued, the event was open to all.
In a spectacular finale to the emotional day, rockets shot along wires circling the catafalque, (decorated funeral platform} to light the crematory flame with a burst of smoke.
Depite early reports from FTUWKC that police were blocking truckloads of garment workers, COHCHR said they had received no complaints on the day of the funeral and the crowd dispersed peacefully.