Six years ago today, Chea Vichea, a fiercely outspoken union leader, was gunned down at a Phnom Penh newsstand. He had spent the morning watching television with his baby daughter and spoon-feeding her rice porridge.
Now that daughter, Chea Vicheata, is 8 years old and fluent in Finnish, and leading a life about as different from her father’s as possible. Vicheata and her younger sister, Chea Vichea Naryroth, 6, who was not yet born when her father was killed, now attend primary school in Helsinki, the Finnish capital, and happily chatter away in their new adoptive tongue.
Their mother, Chea Kimny, lags behind. She still dreams of the late Free Trade Union president—whom she calls her husband, although the two were never officially married.
“It is very hard for me because I cannot go out to find a job, because I have to take care of my children, and I can speak very little Finnish,” said Ms Kimny, who was granted asylum in Finland a bit more than a month after the murder. “It is very cold here, but I am a little bit accustomed to it now.”
Ms Kimny said during a telephone interview yesterday that she worries about her children growing up without the father she remembers as “gentle and honest.”
“Chea Vichea Naryroth always asks me, ‘Where is my papa?’” she said.
“Once I searched a website and saw a clip of the film ‘The Plastic Killers,’” Ms Kimny said, referring to a 2007 documentary on the murder of Chea Vichea. “Chea Vichea Naryroth saw it and started crying because she saw her father lying dead, and she asked, ‘Why was my father killed?’”
Why was Chea Vichea killed, and who killed him?
These questions remain unanswered. His death has become a flashpoint of moral revulsion and a distillation of some of the country’s most enduring social and political problems: impunity, corruption, the violent suppression of dissent, and a judiciary in the thrall of the ruling CPP.
Six years after the union leader’s murder, the two men who gunned him down execution-style have still not been brought to justice, and it remains unclear whether police have made any progress in the case.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy, a close friend and ally of Chea Vichea who helped form the Free Trade Union with him in 1996, says he is certain the murder was politically motivated.
“It was irrefutably a political assassination,” he wrote in an e-mail yesterday. “Remember the prolonged political stalemate following the July 2003 general elections. Chea Vichea’s assassination was very likely a pre-emptive move to weaken the opposition by beheading the powerful, opposition-friendly Free Trade Union.”
It was also the first in a string of murders of labor leaders: Ros Sovannarith and Hy Vuthy, both local presidents of the FTU, were gunned down in 2004 and 2007, respectively.
Tola Moeun, the head of the labor program at the Community Legal Action Center, said yesterday that Chea Vichea’s death and the murders that followed dealt a blow to the burgeoning Cambodian labor movement.
“It’s had a huge impact on union leaders up to now, because they are still afraid of doing something in their advocacy—especially advocacy for policy change and the effective enforcement of labor laws—due to the gunning down of Chea Vichea,” he said. “Until now there has been no real change.”
On Jan 22, 2004, newspaper vendor Va Sothy was sitting at her stand near Wat Lanka reading the morning papers with Chea Vichea when two men drove up on a Honda Wave motorbike. Twenty minutes later, the older of the two men strolled to within an arm’s length of Chea Vichea and fired three shots into his head, chest and left wrist. Ms Sothy wadded up a newspaper to cushion the head of the dead union leader.
Two years later, she still remembered the gunman’s face well: “His nose was not sharp. His lower lip did not droop. His ears looked small. His eyes were black mixed with brown…. He looked wary at all times, and patient,” she said in a 2006 statement.
But at the time of Chea Vichea’s death, Ms Sothy lied to the police out of fear, telling them she could not recall the killers’ faces.
According to her statement, Ms Sothy was forced by then-deputy municipal police chief Heng Pov—a feared senior policeman now serving 58 years in prison for various crimes, including the 2003 killing of Judge Sok Sethamony—to thumbprint a written witness statement without reading it.
(While an international fugitive in 2006, Heng Pov said both suspects were innocent.)
She claimed she was told to “stay quiet and answer as you’re told” when she protested that the two men arrested one week after the murder looked nothing like the killers.
She stayed quiet. A month later, the real killer visited her stand and stared her down. At that point, Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun were already in jail for the murder, where they would remain for another five years until a distinct lack of evidence prompted the Supreme Court to order their conditional release in January 2009.
At that time, the court also called for the inquiry into Chea Vichea’s death to be reopened. Interior Ministry spokesman Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak said yesterday that the murder was still under investigation.
“I can assure you that we have not shut this case yet,” he said.
But Mr Sopheak went on to criticize those who fled Cambodia after the killing for hampering the police inquiry.
“We don’t have any leads because we don’t have enough information because the people don’t want to cooperate with us,” he said. “They just shout and shout, they cry and cry, ‘Who killed him? Who killed him?,’ but they don’t provide us with any concrete information. They cry outside the country and they make a press release and we have nothing in our hands.
“Some people take this case as a political motivation,” he added. “They say they knew who were the killers but they don’t provide information and they don’t stay here—they ask for political asylum and refugee [status] in other countries.”
Chea Vichea’s family and friends are still shouting. His brother Chea Mony, the current president of the Free Trade Union, and his friend Rong Chhun, who leads the Cambodia Independent Teachers Association, appealed this week for the government to accelerate its effort to uncover the truth about the murder. They and other labor leaders plan to mark the anniversary of his death in Phnom Penh today with an 8 am march from the FTU offices to Ms Sothy’s newsstand.
“Seven years since Chea Vichea’s killing, we have never seen the real killers,” Mr Mony said. “We appeal to the government to find and arrest the real killers and those involved so that they can be prosecuted.”
Despite the apparent lack of progress in the investigation, political observer Chea Vannath said yesterday that the Supreme Court decision was a heartening sign for Cambodia’s judicial system: “This is the first highly visible case in which the court reversed its decision, so I think it’s good in the sense that things keep moving forward, and at least there is a struggle between the rule of law and the lack of law.”
“We do not know how long it will take for the case to be transparent,” she added, “and we do not know how long it will take to find the real murderer. But it’s not the only case in which there are still no tangible results. The Chea Vichea case is one among many cases, and it needs time, and time will come.”
True change can take generations, Ms Vannath said, pointing out that the Catholic Church did not formally apologize to Galileo for persecuting him as a heretic until more than 300 years after his death.
But Chea Kimny doesn’t have that long to wait.
“Please, Cambodian government, find and arrest the real killers of my husband,” she begged yesterday from Finland. “I want to return home to pay homage to my husband’s soul.”