Chea Vichea frequently expressed fear for his safety, but the day before he was shot dead, he said he was just fine.
“No. No problems. I’m just home because of the holiday,” the union leader said Wednesday morning, when asked about his personal safety and union work.
Chea Vichea had said he might be considered for a position with the Sam Rainsy Party in the next government, but said he would do what was best for the union.
Chea Vichea, an ardent supporter of the opposition party and president of the country’s most outspoken labor union, was shot dead Thursday morning in a professional-style killing.
The Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia has called on all garment factory workers to stop working today and tomorrow out of respect for Chea Vichea.
Members of the Cambodian Watchdog Council, a group of teacher and student groups, labor unions and a farmer’s association, vowed to organize a mass demonstration if the government does not find Chea Vichea’s killers within a week.
Men Nath, a Council member and president of the Khmer Front of Students and Intellectuals, said the government was responsible for the killing, which he characterized as “violence against the Constitution.”
In separate statements Thursday, the US Embassy appealed for restraint, and the Free Trade Union asked all members and supporters to refrain from violent reactions…. It is crucial we maintain peace and order during the stop-work mourning.”
Social and political activists on Thursday called the slaying an attempt by the government to smother dissent.
“Others cannot pressure the government, but the workers can. Only Chea Vichea has a strong position. He is the only one the people believe in,” said An Nan of the Cambodian Labor Organization, which offers unions legal advice and training.
Chea Vichea spearheaded the Cambodian labor movement as president of the Free Trade Union, which was founded by opposition leader Sam Rainsy in 1996.
In the hours after the slaying, family and friends filled the union’s office in Phnom Penh’s Daun Penh district with incense and offerings, turning the basement floor into a visiting area where the slain union leader will lie until Sunday.
Chea Vichea’s partner, Chea Kimny, collapsed to the office floor with grief as her two-year-old daughter wailed nearby. Chea Kimny is seven months pregnant with their second child.
Hundreds of garment workers burned paper “ghost money” outside the office, while activists and union leaders stood outside in the street, exchanging theories on the killing.
Men Nath, a longtime friend of Chea Vichea’s, dismissed the possibility that the leader’s slaying was masterminded by an angry garment factory owner.
“It is political,” he said.
But Chea Vichea was not liked by many groups, including members of his own union.
Chea Vichea went into hiding in July, after receiving a death threat. He had campaigned heavily for the Sam Rainsy Party in the run-up to the July 27 general election, but stopped after receiving a text message calling him a dog and saying “I want to kill you [on July 26].”
A notorious instigator of wild-cat labor strikes, Chea Vichea also was disliked by many members of the garment factory community.
In April 2002, Chea Vichea was beaten by a garment factory security guard while distributing fliers urging workers to join a May Day demonstration.
And just last month, the union’s deputy secretary-general split from the group to form his own union. Phourng Montry, the Free Trade Union’s former deputy secretary-general, called Chea Vichea an irresponsible leader who didn’t have the ability to control his followers.
On Thursday morning, Phourng Montry was mourning, loudly banging his fist against a door and shaking his head. He later said he would accept the Free Trade Union presidency if the union voted for him.
Sam Rainsy and his wife, Tioulong Saumura, slipped off their shoes and kneeled before Chea Vichea’s body in the office basement, paying respect to the party’s longtime supporter.
“Chea Vichea was the former SRP member. He was my friend,” Sam Rainsy said. “I’m very shocked. When Chea Vichea died, it was the loss of social justice and the democratic process in Cambodia.”
In an interview with BBC television Thursday evening, Sam Rainsy blamed the CPP for the killing, a charge ruling party spokesman Khieu Kanharith rejected.
Ker Soksidney, spokesman for the CPP-controlled Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor, said ministry officials were too busy to pay respects on Thursday but would visit today. Ker Soksidney urged workers to remain calm.
Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia President Van Sou Ieng expressed his condolences for the union leader and said a few factories had allowed workers to go home to grieve.
Van Sou Ieng said Thursday’s killing increased the level of insecurity felt by GMAC members and could tarnish Cambodia’s prospects for future investment.
“We’re not very happy, really. This may cause a delay to whoever may invest in the future,” he said, demanding that the government take greater pains to bring transgressors to justice.
A representative of the Washington-based AFL-CIO said the US labor movement strongly condemned the killing.
“This is a vicious act meant to silence an outspoken advocate for workers,” said Keir Jorgensen, senior program officer for the American Center for International Labor Solidarity.