Free Trade Union President Chea Mony threatened on Friday to stage a nationwide garment workers strike if the government does not take steps to “find the real killers” of his brother, slain union leader Chea Vichea.
“You will recall the activities of Chea Vichea when he was alive; how he helped the workers,” Mr Mony told a crowd of around 100 mourners gathered near Wat Lanka to mark the sixth anniversary of Chea Vichea’s slaying.
“If the government authorities do not find the real killers, we will choose another time for a weeklong strike,” he said.
Mr Mony declined to specify exactly when he planned to call the strike: “Whenever I think it’s the right time for a strike, I will initiate it and announce to garment workers that they should stop work,” he said by phone after the ceremony.
The 50,000 garment workers in the Cambodian Labor Confederation would join a strike on behalf of Chea Vichea, CLC President Ath Thorn said later on Friday.
“We want to demand that the government take action: Those who are killing someone must be put in jail, not just walking around not having any problems,” Mr Thorn said. “The government is responsible for this thing.”
CLC workers will also demand a salary increase from the approximately $50 a month they now earn to a living wage of $93 per month, Mr Thorn added.
“My thinking is that Chea Vichea was the first person who worked hard to increase salaries for garment workers,” he said.
Worker rights crusader and FTU founder Chea Vichea was gunned down execution-style at a newsstand beside Wat Lanka six years ago on Friday as he read the morning newspapers. A week later, police arrested two men and tried them for the murder, but national and international rights groups claimed the two suspects were scapegoats who had been railroaded into signing confessions despite there being almost no evidence linking them to the crime.
Last year, the two were provisionally released from prison, and the Supreme Court ordered the case of Chea Vichea’s murder reopened.
The Interior Ministry claimed on Thursday that the investigation into Chea Vichea’s watershed killing, the first assassination of a union leader in modern Cambodian history, is still active, but that police have made no progress because of uncooperative witnesses who have fled the country. Two other FTU leaders have been gunned down in the intervening years.
The small crowd of mourners at Friday’s ceremony, which included garment workers, human rights activists and about a dozen SRP lawmakers, marched up Street 51 bearing floral wreaths and a portrait of Chea Vichea. They set the portrait on a red plastic chair in front of the newsstand where he was shot dead and surrounded it with a small forest of incense sticks.
“Justice has not been served,” SRP spokesman Yim Sovann said in a speech at the event. “Thousands of workers are waiting to find justice for this murder case. We SRP lawmakers are with the union to demand the Royal Government of Cambodia to reopen the investigation of this murder case very seriously.”
The SRP would support any peaceful demonstration or strike held by garment workers in an attempt to spur on the Chea Vichea murder investigation, Mr Sovann added later.
“They don’t hope that the government can find justice for them, so they have to use their rights to find justice for their leader and all the workers in the union,” he said.
Participants in the event also demanded the right to erect a statue of Chea Vichea near Independence Monument, and appealed to the government and King Norodom Sihamoni to elevate him to the status of national hero.
“The killing of Chea Vichea was a bad dream for the Cambodian people,” said Yeng Virak, executive director of the Community Legal Education Center.
“I always attend this event to remember Chea Vichea, because when he was alive he helped many, many workers find jobs and demanded that garment factory owners cut our working hours,” said Hat Saven, a 32-year-old worker at the Sutong Fang Garment Factory.
An hour after the commemoration march began, the mourners began to dissolve into the Phnom Penh morning until only the wreaths and the newspaper vendors remained. A couple of girls working at a nearby stall darted over to pluck some of the choicest funerary blossoms for their hair.
Lang Saban, 27, the new owner of the newsstand where the union leader was shot dead, said she didn’t mind playing host to the annual ceremony even though she would be blocked off from the street by a wall of white flowers for a good chunk of the day. Ever since she bought the stall from its previous owner—who witnessed the murder and fled the country for fear of being killed—business has been good.
“I don’t know exactly about Chea Vichea,” she said. “I never worry about that—I just sell.”
(Additional reporting by Cheng Sokhorng)