A 36-year-old Free Trade Union official was shot dead in the early hours of Saturday morning as he drove home from work at a Phnom Penh garment factory, police and union officials said Sunday.
Hy Vuthy, FTU leader at the Suntex garment factory, was shot three times by two unidentified assailants on a motorcycle shortly after 5 am, said Dangkao district deputy police chief Chuop Sok Heng, citing eyewitness accounts.
Police have not identified any suspects but have ruled out robbery as a motive in the killing, which occurred about 1.5 km from the factory in Choam Chao commune, he said.
“It was not a robbery because the killers didn’t take his motorbike,” Chuop Sok Heng said, adding that Hy Vuthy was shot in the arm, side and chest.
This marks the third killing of an FTU official since the union’s president Chea Vichea was shot dead in January 2004, which was followed four months later by the gunning-down of Ros Sovannareth, also an FTU leader at a local garment factory.
Chea Mony, current FTU president and the brother of Chea Vichea, said Hy Vuthy’s killing was an attempt to intimidate union members.
“The killing is to frighten FTU members from striking or staging demonstrations against the garment factories,” he told other union leaders at FTU headquarters Sunday morning. “This is also a threat against workers not to participate in the FTU.”
Further violence against trade unionists could provoke a nationwide FTU strike, Chea Mony said.
Hy Vuthy’s body was cremated Sunday morning in a Buddhist ceremony in his home district of Batheay in Kompong Cham province, according to his 30-year-old wife Var Sopheak.
Var Sopheak said her husband is survived by a 5-month-old daughter and a 4-year-old son.
Three months before the killing, Hy Vuthy had received an anonymous telephone death threat, which he had disregarded, she said.
The killing may be related to competition between unions at the factory vying for a greater share of the factory’s members, Var Sopheak claimed.
In an e-mailed statement Sunday, Chea Mony said that Feb 21, representatives of the CPP-affiliated Cambodian Union Federation, which also represents workers at Suntex, had angrily confronted Hy Vuthy after he had requested that factory operators grant employees a day off for Khmer New Year in April.
A CUF official “was enraged and feared that FTU’s actions would make some of his members shift to FTU,” the statement said.
Chhuon Mom Thol, CUF president, praised Hy Vuthy on Sunday, and said his union was in no way involved in the killing.
“He was a nice and gentle guy,” Chhuon Mom Thol said. “There is no competition among unions. Even if there were competition, there should not be such a killing.”
The killing did not constitute a threat against union activism, he said. “If there is a demonstration and people get killed, it is a threat. The killing was not an intimidation against the unions.”
Albert Tan, Cambodia’s administration vice president for the Singaporean garment manufacturer Ocean Sky, which owns the Suntex factory, was traveling Sunday and did not respond to e-mailed requests for comment.
Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia, said he has been told that the factory is helping Hy Vuthy’s family in the wake of the killing.
“My understanding from Albert [Tan] is that they have referred the matter to the police and are providing some support for the family,” he said. “Of course, buyers will contact the factory but I think the buyers will understand that the factory is not a part of this.”
A garment worker was shot in the back during an October demonstration at the Bright Sky garment factory, located in the same compound as Suntex, after factory management called in heavily armed police.
The factory worker, who survived, claimed she had been shot by police, though police denied this was the case.
“I think it’s extremely unfortunate for the factory that so many things have happened in such a short time,” Ken Loo said.
Local rights group Licadho claimed in a December report that FTU activists at both Bright Sky and Suntex “met with a series of serious threats and brutal physical assaults,” during 2006.
In the first 10 months of 2006, there were seven documented cases of union members being shot at or beaten at Suntex and Bright Sky, Naly Pilorge, the group’s executive director, claimed Sunday.
Ken Loo said he had not seen Licadho’s report and declined comment.
Interior Ministry spokesman Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak said police are committed to finding the men who gunned down Hy Vuthy.
(Additional reporting by Kim Chan.)