On the morning of his murder, Chea Vichea stepped out the door of his Phnom Penh apartment and into the sun.
It was the second day of the Chinese New Year holiday and the streets were quieter than usual.
For nearly two months, the prominent union leader had been house bound, holed up in his second-floor apartment fearing a death threat he received in July 2003.
But in recent months, feeling bolder, Chea Vichea had gone back to his usual routine, frequently traveling alone across town and carrying on his work at the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia.
This January morning was like any other. Chea Vichea had woken up to watch some television and to feed a breakfast of rice porridge to his 2-year-old daughter, Chea Vechheka, before leaving the apartment.
Around 8:30 am, he received a phone call from his friend and FTU associate, Hok Lim Eang, asking him to join him at a restaurant for breakfast.
Chea Vichea declined the invitation. According to Chea Vichea’s live-in partner, Chea Kimny, who was then seven-months pregnant with his second child, the union leader had wanted to visit his office to pay his staff for the New Year holiday. Before he said good-bye, he took with him $700 to be distributed for their salaries.
That would be the last time Chea Kimny saw him alive.
Dressed in a crisp, white shirt, Chea Vichea hopped on his Viva motorcycle and headed toward his office.
The 40-year-old had suspected on several previous occasions that someone was trailing him. A known instigator of wildcat labor strikes and a strong advocate of the Sam Rainsy Party, Chea Vichea had numerous enemies in the garment industry, the government and even within his own union.
In April 2002, he was beaten by a security guard at a factory while he attempted to distribute fliers urging workers to join a May Day demonstration.
On July 2003, after he helped his friend Sam Rainsy campaign in the national election, he received a message on his mobile phone that called him a dog and read: “I want to kill you.”
Alarmed, the union leader had brought the phone to the Phnom Penh Municipal Penal Police, according to Chea Vichea’s close friend Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association. Upon inspection, the police told him the threat was sent by a “high-ranking” official and that they could do nothing about it. The police advised him to go into hiding,Rong Chhun said.
Around that time, vitriol within the FTU itself had also boiled to the surface. In December 2004, FTU Secretary-General Phourng Montry split from the union after being accused of corruption. Phourng Montry denied the accusations and publicly lambasted Chea Vichea, calling him an “irresponsible leader who didn’t have the ability to control [his] followers.”
Chea Vichea knew someone wanted him dead. In a video testimony made only weeks before his death, Chea Vichea said he knew he was a target of political persecution and that if he were to be killed, an order for his death would have come from the highest powers in the government, according to Sam Rainsy, who would later recover the tape as evidence to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court.
By January 2004, Sam Rainsy and Funcinpec President Prince Norodom Ranariddh were, what seemed then, firmly joined in an Alliance of Democrats to oppose the results of the July 2003 national election and were calling for the removal of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
In the months preceding, the strength of the Alliance had been tested as pro-Funcinpec radio journalist Chuor Chetharith and popular singer Touch Srey Nich—who had recorded music for the royalist party—were shot publicly by unknown gunmen. For Chuor Chetharith, the shooting proved fatal.
The Alliance was shaken by the attacks but, according to Sam Rainsy, still believed it could prevail against the CPP and hold fast to its demands until the CPP gave in to the post-election deadlock.
Sam Rainsy said he had even discussed with Chea Vichea in December 2003 the possibility of securing the union leader a position as the Minister of Labor once the deadlock passed. That was one of the last conversations he recalls having with Chea Vichea.
Interviewed later, friends said that if anyone had followed Chea Vichea as he left the apartment on the morning of Jan 22, 2004, they would likely never know.
It wasn’t until after he was shot dead that neighbors thought to tell Chea Vichea’s brother Chea Mony that they had seen an unfamiliar man on a red Viva motorbike, speaking into a walkie-talkie outside Vichea’s apartment.
Chea Mony, who six months later took over the helm of the FTU, said he did not know whether that man was involved in the crime, but he suspected someone had their eye on his brother even as he left home that day.
A year after Chea Vichea’s death, vendors across from his apartment on Street 360 claimed they remembered little about the union leader, let alone having seen an unfamiliar man with a walkie-talkie on a red Viva motorbike.
Just before 9 am, Chea Vichea visited a newspaper stall run by vendor Var Sothy, on the corner of Sihanouk Boulevard and Street 51.
He regularly read newspapers at Var Sothy’s stall, preferring to stop there since it was close to the FTU office, only a few city blocks away.
Starting from the Khmer-language newspapers, Vichea would peruse through them all, leaving the French-language Cambodge Soir and The Cambodia Daily for last.
It was while he was reading The Cambodia Daily opposite Var Sothy that two men on a Honda motorcycle pulled up outside the stall. The passenger, dressed in a white long-sleeved shirt, dismounted and walked inside.
He fired three shots, hitting Chea Vichea in the head, in the chest and in his left arm.
The shots killed him instantly. In the days and months afterward, his supporters, friends and international observers would decry the killing as a politically motivated attack; Chea Kimny and the couple’s two children would find asylum in Finland; Chea Mony would reclaim from police his brother’s possessions from the crime scene—minus the $700; and the police would arrest two men, Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun—both of whom left many unconvinced they were the true
perpetrators of the crime.
Shortly after his arrest, and after first pleading his innocence, suspect Born Samnang told reporters he was hired to kill Chea Vichea for a payment of $5,000. Weeks later, Born Samnang’s girlfriend Vieng Thi Hong and her mother gave reporters a different account, saying Born Samnang had been with them in Village 6, Prey Veng province, the day of Chea Vichea’s death.
A year later, little light has been shed on the case.
Those closest to Chea Vichea maintain the government was behind his death, though they do not know who placed the order.
Chea Mony, Rong Chhun and Sam Rainsy continue to believe he was killed to intimidate members of the Alliance of Democrats into ending the political deadlock with the CPP.
On this point, Chea Mony is adamant. “If the government was not responsible, the authorities would have found the true killers by now,” he said.
Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun remain in prison, awaiting trial, nearly a full year after their arrest.
Newspaper vendor Var Sothy, who spoke publicly about what she had witnessed on the day of the shooting, declined this week to speak about what she had seen.
Asked if she had been threatened into silence, she answered curtly: “If you know about politics in Cambodia, you would understand.” And despite their insistence that they have caught Chea Vichea’s killers, the authorities have yet to reveal who may have hired them to carry out the shooting.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak acknowledged this week that the police have all but forgotten the mastermind behind the killing. “After the arrest of the two suspects, it seems we lost track of who was behind the killing,” he said.