Prominent union leader Chea Vichea was gunned down in an execution-style killing on Thursday morning as he sat reading a newspaper outside Wat Langka in Chamkar Mon district.
The shooting of Chea Vichea, President of the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia, marks the first killing of a union leader in Cambodia.
Closely aligned with the Sam Rainsy Party, the 40-year-old union leader’s slaying was quickly branded a political killing by colleagues and politicians. The slaying also ends a three-month lull since a rash of similar assassination-style killings and shootings in Phnom Penh.
According to witnesses, two men in their mid-20s pulled up on a Honda motorcycle outside a newspaper stall on the corner of Sihanouk Boulevard and Street 51, at around 9 am.
The passenger, wearing a long-sleeved white shirt, alighted, entered the stall and fired three shots at point-blank range into Chea Vichea’s head, chest and left arm. Neither of the killers attempted to cover their faces with masks or hats, said Var Sothy, 36, the owner of the stall.
“He sat and read the Cambodia Daily newspaper opposite to me. [Chea Vichea] usually came to read the newspapers, sometimes in the morning and sometimes in the evening. When I saw [the attacker] coming in, I did not pay any attention to him. Then he shot at [Chea Vichea],” Var Sothy said.
Chea Vichea was a daily customer and he knew someone wanted him dead, Var Sothy said. In the weeks leading up to the July general elections, Chea Vichea was forced into hiding following several serious death threats.
Chea Vichea’s killing made international news on CNN, the British Broadcasting Corp and Asian Network News.
In an interview with the BBC, opposition party leader Sam Rainsy firmly laid the blame on Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling CPP, saying the killing was “very in line with their tradition of violence.”
“I have suspicion that it is a politically motivated assassination and that the ruling party…is behind these assassinations,” Sam Rainsy said.
CPP spokesman Khieu Kanharith said Thursday evening that Sam Rainsy better have evidence to support his allegations of government involvement in Chea Vichea’s death.
“[Sam Rainsy] better give the proof,” said Khieu Kanharith, adding that police should be allowed to finish their investigation.
He said the killing was likely aimed at casting suspicion on the CPP, a situation that would benefit the opposition.
Chea Vichea may have had personal disputes within his own organization, or a problem linked to a factory, Khieu Kanharith added.
Police struggled to maintain order at the newsstand where Chea Vichea fell, still holding his bloody newspaper in hand. A bundle of newspapers were placed under his head to absorb the flow of blood from the bullet wound on the top of his head.
A district police officer shouted orders with a megaphone but was unable to keep back the throng of friends, reporters and gawkers who gathered at the scene. Ordering the body moved, an associate of the union leader hauled the body onto the back of a waiting police truck that took the corpse to Wat Preah Puth.
Deputy Municipal Police Chief Heng Pov visited the scene briefly. Contacted later, Heng Pov said police were searching for a motive.
“We do not yet know the real motive. We are still investigating,” Heng Pov said.
Kem Sokha, director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said the union lead-
er received death threats constantly.
“He usually had arguments with the authorities when he led the workers to hold demonstrations to protect worker’s rights,” Kem Sokha said. “I believe that it is a threat against democracy.”
Wrapped in a white sheet, Chea Vichea’s body was laid out at Wat Preah Puth as grief-stricken relatives and family gathered at the pagoda where a large force of police and military police officers had also collected.
The situation turned tense when Chea Vichea’s family was denied permission by police officers from taking the body from the pagoda. A Chamkar Mon district official, who would not give his name, said the decision on where the body rested was up to municipal officials.
Enraged, Chea Vichea’s younger brother, Chea Mony demanded the police make way, shouting, “This is my brother. I have the right to take him out of here. If you don’t like it, shoot me dead.”
Faced with a volatile situation, Municipal Cabinet Chief Mann Chhoeun allowed the body to be taken to the union offices.
Cradled by friends, Chea Vichea’s body was carried to the back of a small truck and driven to the headquarters of Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia, located near the US Embassy.
“He always leads the workers in protest for justice from garment factory owners. He was a democrat, against dictatorship,” Sam Rainsy Parliamentarian Keo Remy said at the pagoda.
“They shot him in the daytime, in front of the public like that. From my experience, I feel like it is something involved with politics. They try to threaten all the people never to stand up and fight for democracy,” he said.
Family and friends wailed as Chea Vichea’s blood-stained clothes were removed at the union offices and his body sponged with water. Incense sticks were lit as factory workers, union members and officials from the Sam Rainsy Party and Funcinpec paid their respects.
Mann Chhoeun, on behalf of the municipality, donated more than $500 toward the funeral expenses. Nearby, dozens of police officers, clubs in hand, lounged on the street corners opposite the union offices.
It is time for the international community and Cambodia’s donors to break their silence on the slaughter of public figures by trained killers, Minister of Women’s Affairs Mu Sochua said after paying her respects.
“Killing after killing of the most active, the most credible leaders of the different movements. We have the press, now we have labor,” she said, referring to the October killing of royalist radio reporter Chuor Chetharith.
“The international community cannot ignore that the money that is given for development—is it given to serve the right cause to improve the framework?” she said. “Can we call this stability?”
Mu Sochua, a member of Funcinpec, also called on the US to send a strong message to the government to lift its blanket ban on public gatherings, and allow supporters of the slain union leaders gather, and march if they want to express their sorrow.
In a statement issued Thursday, the US Embassy condemned the “cowardly murder” of Chea Vichea who was “a champion of labor rights and the free trade union movement in Cambodia, which the United States strongly supports.”
Calling on the government to make a “maximum effort” in investigating the crime, the embassy said a “culture of impunity in Cambodia must not be tolerated.”
The embassy also urged restraint on all sides “so that this tragedy will not be compounded by further violence,” and asked the government to ensure the security of labor organizers and Chea Vichea’s family.
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