In the months preceding and following Cambodia’s 2003 national election, bloody political slayings proved scourges on the country’s efforts to advance its decade-old democracy.
The most high-profile victim on a list that includes political advisers, karaoke singers and journalists is Free Trade Union leader Chea Vichea. Tomorrow marks 10 years since his murder.
Vichea, 40, who had survived the 1997 grenade attack on an opposition rally, had only recently emerged from months in hiding – following death threats – when he was gunned down near a newsstand close to Wat Lanka in the capital.
The union leader was shot in the chest, head and left wrist at close range at about 9:15 on the morning of January 22, 2004.
His murderer, a man firing a handgun, escaped on a motorcycle driven by an accomplice. To this day, the two men remain free – and the investigation aimed at finding them appears to have slowed to a stop.
“The culture of impunity is going on. If the police want to find out [the killer], they have the capacity to find out … but this is a lack of political will,” opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party lawmaker-elect Yim Sovann said yesterday. “They do not want to arrest the two, because they know who was behind it.”
Sovann, then a Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker, arrived at the newsstand, near the corner of Street 51 and Sihanouk Boulevard, about 10 minutes after the shooting to find Vichea – “a close friend … for years” – dead and police trying to rush his body away.
“What made me very disappointed was that when the police came to the scene, they were in a hurry to take his body out of there,” Sovann said. “There was no investigation. No analysis of the evidence – or where the bullets came from. They tried to manipulate the case.”
Two men wrongfully imprisoned for the murder, Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, were acquitted only last year, and police have made no further noise about suspects or motives.
Neither National Police spokesman Kirth Chantharith nor Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak could be reached for comment yesterday.
But Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, insisted the case remained open, though he could not say how many police were still working to find Vichea’s killer.
“The case is still open. It is not closed,” he said. “Anyone in the public that comes up with solid proof about what happened is still able to present it and the [police] can consider it.”
The opposition, the FTU and rights groups have long claimed that Vichea’s slaying was politically motivated.
The union leader had helped form the FTU with now opposition CNRP leader Sam Rainsy in the 1990s, campaigned for Rainsy’s eponymous party at the 2003 election and was receiving threats as he armed garment workers with knowledge of their rights and of protest techniques.
“He was very polite and committed to doing things for the nation,” Sovann said. “He knew he was going to die. But he loved his country; he wanted a clean society and he thought about the interests of others. He sacrificed his life for the cause of Cambodian workers.”
Vichea’s funeral brought up to 15,000 people to the street, many of them garment workers. On a march route slightly resembling the one planned for tomorrow’s anniversary, they walked from FTU’s office to Independence Monument, then continued to Wat Botum.
The Post described it at the time as “the biggest outpouring of grief and anger Cambodia has seen in recent years”.
Among the mourners that day was garment worker Poun Srey Mom.
Now 40, Srey Mom remains in the industry, and said yesterday that Vichea’s legacy could still be felt on the factory floor.
“The death of Chea Vichea did not make the workers stop protesting,” she said. “Garment workers became stronger – and we keep getting stronger – because he died fighting for us.”
In the past 10 years, workers had become more aware of their rights, and factory and government strategies to solve workplace disputes had improved, Srey Mom added.
But the violent crackdown on the capital’s Veng Sreng Boulevard earlier this month – during which authorities shot dead at least four workers – was unprecedented, she said.
Chea Mony, who became FTU president in the wake of his brother’s death, said Vichea had been a hero among garment workers – especially after he made demands for higher wages – and in death had provided inspiration for other unions and their leaders.
But threats and intimidation against union leaders remain strong, Mony added, while cases of workers being shot dead on the streets were unheard of 10 years ago.
“If we compare it to back then, the threats and the intimidation is the same, but the [crackdowns on workers] are much crueller,” he said.
Ath Thorn, president of the Independent Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union (C.CAWDU), said yesterday that a greater diversity of unions on the industrial landscape now has brought about more opportunities to negotiate with the government and employers.
“If workers want to strike or employers want to sack them, they have to go through the correct channels – they can’t just do what they want,” he said.
Workers had become more aware of their rights – something that could be attributed in part to Vichea’s struggle – but violence had worsened.
“In the past year, more workers have died than in any other year,” Thorn said. “So Vichea remains a good example for the workers to keep fighting.”
Dave Welsh, country manager for labour rights group Solidarity Center, said that in the past decade, Cambodia’s independent union movement had grown in size and density and now “punched above its weight” in terms of gaining support from overseas when it came to rights violations.
While drive-by shootings and associated violence have declined in the industry, the recent Veng Sreng crackdown showed “that violence is still a factor, and fear still plays a part in workers’ and trade unionists’ lives”, he said.
The “full-on assault on trade union rights” since the fatal shooting on January 3 was an “ironic and negative” development approaching the anniversary of Vichea’s death, Welsh added.
With the Veng Sreng crackdown and subsequent ban on public gatherings, the CNRP’s Sovann said, the culture of threats and intimidation against workers was continuing.
“The difference is the change of mentality. At that time, with Chea Vichea, workers were afraid of participating. Now they are aware. They are not afraid to demonstrate – but the culture of brutal crackdowns is still there.”