Labor leader remembered 20 years after his assassination

Chea Vichea helped organize garment factory workers during industry’s early years in Cambodia.
By RFA Khmer
2024.01.22
Labor leader remembered 20 years after his assassination Cambodians remember the fifth anniversary of the death of labor leader Chea Vichea in Phnom Penh on Jan. 22, 2009. Vichea, who headed the country’s largest labor union, was gunned down at a Phnom Penh newsstand in January 2004.
(Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP)

Twenty years after he was gunned down while reading a newspaper, Cambodian labor leader Chea Vichea was remembered on Monday by union members, family members, NGO officials and opposition politicians.

The outspoken critic of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government was shot on Jan. 22, 2004, by an unknown assailant.

As president of the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia, Chea Vichea had worked to organize garment factory workers during the industry’s early years in the country.

Two men were arrested within days of the murder with each handed 20-year jail sentences in a 2005 trial decried by rights groups as unjust.

The men, Sok Sam Oeun and Born Samnang, maintained they had been framed by police, and were finally acquitted in 2013 by Cambodia’s Supreme Court, which ruled they had been wrongfully convicted.

ENG_KHM_CheaVichea_01222024.2.jpg
Born Samnang, left, and Sok Sam Oeun, convicted for the 2004 murder of a prominent labor leader Chea Vichea, are escorted by a prison guard to the supreme court in Phnom Penh on Sept. 25, 2013, to be acquitted after being seen by rights groups as scapegoats. (Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP)

A special commission set up by Hun Sen in 2015 to find the real killers and accomplices has produced no results. The government says the case remains under investigation.

Union leader and opposition activist Rong Chhun remembered Chea Vichea’s work to protect the rights and interests of the workers.

“Twenty years later, we continue to search for the real killer and those behind the killings to bring them to justice,” he said at the commemoration ceremony.

Chea Vichea’s younger brother, Chea Mony, said on Monday that the family still hopes authorities will find and arrest the gunman and anyone else involved.

“No need to hide,” he said. “There are enough witnesses to show to the government. But does the government have the will and intention to arrest the murderer?”

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Chea Mony, the brother of the late former labor leader Chea Vichea, speaks at the 12th anniversary of Chea Vichea’s death in Phnom Penh on Jan. 22, 2016. Families and unionists are still demanding justice for Vichea, who was gunned down in broad daylight 20 years ago. (Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP)

A genuine investigation and prosecution in the case could go a long way in countering Cambodia’s culture of impunity, according to Khun Tharo, the labor program manager for Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights.

He also pointed to the 2012 shooting death of environmentalist Chut Wutty and the 2016 killing of political commentator Kem Ley. 

Chut Wutty was killed while investigating illegal logging in southern Cambodia’s Koh Kong province. Kem Ley was gunned down days after he publicly criticized Hun Sen and his family for abuse of power and unexplained wealth.

Translated by Sum Sok Ry. Edited by Matt Reed and Malcolm Foster.

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