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The shooting of a Cambodian unionist that killed a people's movement

Momentous event brings painful memories 10 years later

The shooting of a Cambodian unionist that killed a people's movement

Mourners remember murdered unionist Chea Vichea in Phnom Penh

Abby Seiff and Cheng Sokhorng

January 22, 2014

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A decade ago today, a unionist was gunned down as he stood on a street corner, reading a newspaper.

At the time, the case was hardly isolated. Just four months later another unionist would fall dead after being shot three times by an assassin.

But the murder of Chea Vichea was different. For one, it was a killing that quashed an unprecedented and powerful people’s movement. For another, a handful of individuals are still suffering the repercussions of the death a decade on.

“It’s a kind of shadow in my life,” is how Sok Sam Oeun describes the past 10 years.

A week after Vichea was gunned down, Sam Oeun and another young man, Born Samnang, were dragged in by the police and charged with the murder. It did not matter that one of them was in another province at the time of the death, that neither had met before, that they had no connection to Vichea and that even eyewitnesses said they were not the culprits.

They were identified as the murderers, found guilty and sentenced to 20 years in prison. It was only in September of last year that the charges were dropped and the court admitted what rights groups, foreign governments and even the former police chief had been saying for years: Samnang and Sam Oeun were fall guys.

Speaking by phone, both men said they have found it impossible to put the past behind them.

"My mother called me yesterday to check in and ask about my situation. I tried to calm her, saying I was fine, but actually, I just feel sad," Samnang said.

"I worry about my life, especially my health. And sometimes I am afraid they will come back and arrest me again, because I have two experiences of this already," he said.

Though legally implausible, it is far from an irrational thought.

After their January 2004 arrest, the men spent five years in prison before being provisionally released by Supreme Court judges who raised serious concerns over the handling of the case and ordered a reinvestigation. From January 2009 until December 2012, they lived as free men. And then they were thrown in prison again.

It took nine months for the case to be heard at the Supreme Court. This time, the verdict left no wiggle room. The charges were dropped, the pair released.

In a nation where judicial miscarriages are the norm, there are few cases that have seen innocent lives wrecked to this degree.

“I am not happy, I feel sad, I cannot sleep well and it has been especially bad during the social chaos of the last two months. I am so afraid something will happen to my life again,” Sam Oeun said.

As Sam Oeun speaks in quavering tones, his three-year-old daughter can be heard squealing happily in the background. When she grows up, he will never tell her what happened.

“I won’t tell her because I don’t want anyone to look down on my daughter. Nowadays, there are fewer educated people. When they don’t understand, they will look down at her,” he said.

Four months after he left prison, Sam Oeun is still struggling to make ends meet. If he could afford to, he would repair his collapsed house and begin teaching English classes there again. Instead, he takes whatever work he can get as a fisherman and farmer, and lives hand to mouth.

“At the time, I was so much better off than my friends. Now, my life is so much worse. I live with nothing except the terror that they will come back and do whatever they want with me,” he said.

Outside the Free Trade Union offices yesterday, half a dozen unionists milled around while Chea Mony chatted with them from his perch on a motorbike. After Vichea was gunned down, his younger brother Mony took the helm as union president.

Replacing the charismatic and fearless Vichea, while battling the courts for a real investigation into his brother’s death has taken a toll.

“For me, it’s difficult to work at Chea Vichea’s job, because I never worked as director [before taking over],” he said in an interview.

“First, I have to be the chief of this union. Second, I have to deal with the Chea Vichea case. Third is confronting the government and fourth is confronting the employers.”

Mony and many others believe the killing of Vichea was a government-ordered assassination. In the months leading up to his death, he had received a death threat and been urged by the police to flee or go into hiding.

Heng Pov, who served as municipal police chief during the case alluded to as much years later while on the lam, telling French newsmagazine L’express that "It did not take me long to understand that the two suspects, Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, had nothing to do with the murder."

If the intention was to shut down a powerful worker’s movement that had increasing leverage as a political deadlock drew on, Vichea's killing did the trick.

“Many unionists fled at the time. Of course I felt nervous and scared [to take over], but if I focused on this feeling - who is going to work for the workers?" said Mony. "At the time, no one cared about the garment worker’s situation. Only Chea Vichea tried.”

The murder had an immediate, long lasting and chilling effect. The union movement grew increasingly splintered, and workers less able to lobby for their rights; a trend that has only just begun reversing.

But beyond simply marshalling workers, Vichea was seminal in pushing for many of the parts that drive the garment sector today, including access to US markets and the tripartite body of factories, labor officials and unionists that sets the minimum wage.  

It’s perhaps a futile exercise to imagine how different the life of garment workers in Cambodia might be today had Vichea lived. But it’s clear, said Mony: “The situation of workers is getting worse and worse from year to year.”

Vichea spent the months before his assassination lying low and avoiding unnecessary outings. When he was killed, it took place in broad daylight on a busy street where the presence of so many eyewitnesses might have been expected to provide safety.

The accounts are well recorded: Vichea purchased a newspaper at his regular newsstand and began reading it. A motorbike drove up, an unmasked passenger dismounted and casually shot Vichea three times in the head, chest and arm at point blank range.

In Phnom Penh, a few hundred mourners gathered this morning near those newsstands to pray for Vichea.

Some 11,000 kms away, a similar if smaller ceremony may be held in Finland. After Vichea was murdered, the death threats began coming for his pregnant common-law wife. She and the couple’s baby daughter received asylum in Finland just two months after his death; a measure of how tenuous her situation had become.

“I needed to force myself to live in this country immediately, alone with my daughter and while pregnant,” Chea Kimny said, speaking by phone from Finland. “I received good security, but my heart has never been at peace. I am not happy, I miss my husband and I miss my homeland.”

After hearing of her husband’s death, Kimny raced to the crime site, two-year-old in tow. Though just a baby, the memory seared.

“My older daughter still remembers her father well, and she is still afraid because she saw his body covered in blood,” Kimny said.

Her younger daughter, now nine, was born in Finland shortly after Kimny’s arrival. She looks like Vichea, she said.

“Whenever I see her face, I miss my husband.” 

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