City authorities will allow a ceremony to take place today to honour the 12th anniversary of union leader Chea Vichea’s assassination on one condition – that those gathered do not mention anything about politics or criticise the government.
On January 22, 2004, Vichea, leader of the Free Trade Union for garment workers, was shot dead in broad daylight at a newsstand in front of the Wat Langka pagoda in Phnom Penh. Vichea’s murderer was never found, though two men later vindicated spent a combined 10 years in jail for the crime.
His death caused an uproar, largely due to his popularity as a union leader and to his high-profile support of the political opposition.
The FTU, now led by Vichea’s brother, Chea Mony, filed a request with city authorities to gather by the scene of the murder to commemorate Vichea – a request that was granted, but with a few preconditions, according to Deputy Phnom Penh Governor Khoung Seng.
“We allow the participation of around 150 to 200 people, so they can do a religious ceremony and say a message like asking the government to expedite the process of finding the murderer who killed Chea Vichea . . . but they cannot say anything related to politics or criticise the government leaders or demand to increase garment workers’ salaries,” Seng said in an interview. “If they still talk about politics, we will take action, but I can’t tell you what.”
Mony confirmed a largely religious gathering of about 150 workers and unionists will take place today in front of a statue of Vichea erected near the scene.
But Mony declined to comment on whether he had agreed to authorities’ conditions.
“I have no comment about what city hall said, but the participants have the right to speak their opinion in public,” he said.
There have long been lingering suspicions surrounding Vichea’s assassination. The 2011 documentary Who Killed Chea Vichea? was banned in Cambodia because of its implication that authorities ordered the hit.
Kem Ley, a grassroots political activist, said the government’s banning of political speech during Vichea’s commemoration was “very bad” and reminiscent of an “old culture” of top-down leadership.
“They don’t want to hear any criticism,” he said.
Additional reporting by Charles Rollet