The Assassination of Union Leader Chea Vichea—A Decade On

Ten years after his assassination, friends and associates remember Chea Vichea, the founding president of the Free Trade Union, as a quiet man but a charismatic leader, passionate about labor issues and the right for workers to collectively bargain for higher wages and better conditions.

“He was a very disciplined person. He liked to spend time with his friends and was friendly with people. When they wanted him to explain things, he did it smoothly, without arrogance, and with patience,” said Chea Mony, Chea Vichea’s brother and current president of the FTU.

“He was very discreet and very humble, a modest man,” said opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who helped Chea Vichea found the FTU in 1998.

On Wednesday, the FTU will march to mark the 10th anniversary of the day Chea Vichea left his home in the early morning to buy a newspaper at a stand in front of Wat Lanka and was gunned down by two men on motorcycles.

Despite a ban on public assemblies, FTU leaders and supporters said that they would go ahead with their annual march, which will take them to a statue of Chea Vichea erected last year near where he was slain.

“Although City Hall did not allow us to march, our stance remains and we will march the same as before, because we have held a ceremony every years since 2004,” Mr. Mony said Tuesday.

In September, Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, long considered scapegoats arrested and convicted for the assassination, were acquitted and released by the Supreme Court after a Kafkaesque, nine-year legal battle. The Interior Ministry says an investigation into the identity of the true killers is still open.

While there is still no clear answer as to who killed Chea Vichea, friends, family and observers say they think they know why he was murdered: because of his affiliation with the political opposition, as well as his determination to organize Cambodian workers to bargain collectively with their bosses and the government.

“He was very actively mobilizing workers to campaign for wage increases…. His union was at the forefront of collective bargaining, and that is one of the workers’ fundamental rights, besides the right to unionize and to strike,” said Moeun Tola, head of the Community Legal Education Center’s labor program

“He was the focal point. He was esteemed and respected by all and was likely to be the one person who could achieve collective bargaining followed by a majority of workers,” said Pung Chiv Kek, president of rights group Licadho.

Ten years after the assassination, however, that right to collective bargaining, inscribed in the 1994 Labor Law, can still not be properly exercised.

A 2013 report by the Stanford Law School on the International Labor Organization’s Better Factories Cambodia program and the overall situation of the garment industry found that despite the large number of labor unions here, there was nearly no successful collective bargaining.

“The near absence of authentic collective bargaining agreements in Cambodia and the repression of attempts by workers’ organizations to secure them strongly belie claims that the country’s garment industry represents a labor rights ‘success story,’” stated the report, Monitoring in The Dark.

“Where unions have attempted coordinated action to establish industry-wide bargaining, resistance has been fierce and sometimes violent,” says the report, which cites the assassination of Chea Vichea as well as two of his colleagues, FTU leaders Ros Sovannareth and Hy Vuthy, who were publicly gunned down in 2004 and 2007, respectively.

The issue of collective bargaining is now more important than ever, said Mr. Rainsy.

“Chea Vichea was instrumental in achieving collective bargaining. He pushed wage increases through collective bargaining and that upset many,” he said.

“The workers’ were severely cracked down on by police and armed forces in 2004, and now, it’s even worse, with more intensity,” Mr. Rainsy said of the past weeks’ demonstrations, which saw five strike protesters shot dead on January 3 by military police as tens of thousands of workers demonstrated for a minimum wage of $160.

There are, however, significant differences. In 2004, the garment industry employed 270,000 workers and was still in its infancy, worth around $2 billion. Today, the industry is worth more than $5 billion and employs 500,000 workers.

With that, workers’ leverage has changed as well, and could offer an example for other industries, Mr. Tola said.

“Before the violent crackdown [on January 3] and after the government offered to increase the minimum wage, more and more workers stood up. And then the civil servants, the construction workers, teachers, and people from the service industry also said they want higher wages,” he said.

“The problem is that the movement is now bigger and larger than before, and I can see that more people, not only from the garment factory but also the public sector want collective bargaining,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Khy Sovuthy)

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