Cambodia's union movement has produced yet another widow. But 30-year-old Var Sopheak
- her head shaved in traditional respect for her dead husband - cannot simply mourn
her loss in peace. She flees from place to place - both in the city and her home
province - fearing for herself and the lives of her two young children.
Var Sopheak, widow of trade unionist Hy Vuthy, and her children.
Sopheak spoke to the Post at a secret Phnom Penh safe-house, provided by anonymous
donors. It had been only days since the murder of her husband, Hy Vuthy, Free Trade
Union (FTU) president at Suntex garment factory in Dangkor district, and Sopheak
is the face of fear.
"I'm too frightened to go back to our house," said Sopheak. "I'm scared
they'll do harm to me. I want to go overseas to protect my children. I don't care
- I just want to escape here."
Vuthy, 36, was shot dead by two men on a motorcycle at 5:15am on February 24 on his
way home from work, about a kilometer from his Dangkor home. Sopheak usually accompanied
her husband to and from the same shift at Suntex. Now, she says she's too frightened
to ever return to work at the factory. The helmet Vuthy wore on his motorbike when
he was gunned down, sat alone in a corner of the safe-house room.
"I rushed over there when I heard he'd been shot," said Sopheak. "An
ambulance had already been and gone, but the [ambulance] doctor said he was dead."
The police were surveying the scene, and Sopheak saw wounds in Vuthy's chest, stomach
"The police tried to stop me from touching him, but I insisted," she said.
"I put his head on my lap, and I could feel his breathing. Then I tried to shut
his eyes but he kept opening them and looked up at me." Sopheak said Vuthy was
certainly alive and she desperately tried to take him to hospital on a motor-taxi.
Trade union leader Chea Vichea, shot dead on January 22, 2004.
"But the police would not let me take him," Sopheak said. "I'm too
afraid to say why they stopped me. Finally, after more than five minutes, they allowed
me to take him. He died on the way."
Authorities say Vuthy died immediately at the scene.
Vuthy's death marks the third assassination of a union leader in the last three years
- all members of the Sam Rainsy Party affiliated FTU. In 2004, FTU president Chea
Vichea, and a local factory FTU president, Ros Sovannarith, were similarly shot dead
by two assassins on a motorbike.
In a statement after Vuthy's murder, human rights NGO Licadho said there were at
least six violent attacks in 2006 against FTU officials at Suntex and the adjoining
Bright Sky factory - both owned by Ocean Sky Cambodia. The most dramatic occurred
in an October strike at Bright Sky, which police violently quashed, shooting a fleeing
female worker in the back.
Many observers and union leaders blame the killings and violence on politically motivated
rivalry between unions. There is widespread suspicion that the government and police
are not making any effort to punish perpetrators, and that such crimes are designed
to intimidate the opposition-affiliated FTU, which is involved in more strikes and
labor disputes than any other union in the country.
"One of the things I'm concerned about is there is no statement form the authorities,"
said Alonzo Suson, country program director of the American Center for International
"Here the labor movement is very young, [so] there is competition. They are
not used to working together yet. [This murder] should be a concern for all unions.
[The other unions say] 'It's FTU's problem, not ours', but actually it's everyone's
problem," he said.
"Vuthy's killing involved the unions backing the government and factory owner,
as they have the power to use guns against FTU members," said Chea Mony, FTU
president and brother of slain Chea Vichea. "The authorities have done nothing
about investigating or arresting the killers. Now we're offering a chance to the
government and interior ministry - especially ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak -
to prove they have been seriously investigating the continuous murdering of FTU leaders,"
Mony told the Post. Mony told local press that, a few days before Vuthy died, CPP-affiliated
Cambodian Union Federation (CUF) members from Suntex had angrily confronted Vuthy
for requesting the factory to give workers a Khmer New Year holiday. Mony said the
CUF feared this would cause their members to switch to the FTU.
But CUF president Chhoun Mom Thol replied in a letter to the FTU that Mony had recently
denied repeated requests from Vuthy to resign from the FTU.
"Could this be a motive for Vuthy's killing?" Thol asked in the statement.
"Vuthy was really nice. All the workers [of all unions] at that factory liked
him," Thol told the Post, adding there was no union rivalry in garment factories.
"Since I am an adviser for the Deputy Prime Minister [Sar Keng], I have the
right to have bodyguards, but I don't have gangsters-maybe Chea Mony has gangsters,"
Choy Chin, FTU secretary-general at Suntex, confirmed Vuthy had wanted to resign,
but he had persuaded Vuthy to agree to wait until May so as to further strengthen
the union at Suntex.
Both Chin and former Bright Sky FTU president Chi Samon told the Post they fear for
their safety and have little faith in police investigation of the murders. They are
threatening to resign from the FTU if the police do not find the killers in a few
Fear also is palpable round the Suntex and Bright Sky factories. Workers and motodops
interviewed by the Post on March 7 refused to give their names, and spoke of fear
for their personal safety and frequent fighting between the various unions in the
factories. Many workers had left the unions to avoid the danger of being associated
with a union, despite the advantages belonging to a union gives.
There seems no doubt that courage is needed to be a union leader in Cambodia.
"A few months ago they called Vuthy and said if he kept being a union leader
he would be killed," said Sopheak. "I was frightened and asked him to stop,
but my husband said he had to help the workers, because they are fellow Cambodians."
And courage is also required of their wives. Since Vuthy's murder Sopheak says masked
motorcycle riders have stalked her house and places she has been staying in her home
"When I was at the funeral the neighbors saw them throw rocks at the house,"
Sopheak said. "I saw the same man watching me where my husband died, at the
funeral and at Licadho."
And what of the children of the victims? "Every day my 4-year-old son Wunsing
says 'Where's dad? I'm waiting for him to come home to have rice with me," said
Sopheak. "He won't eat alone. He looks just like his father."