US documentary film maker, Bradley Cox once said “hero” is one of the most over used words in the English language. Interviewed about his 55-minute documentary “Who Killed Chea Vichea” which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010, Cox commented “I don't know if I ever met an honest-to-goodness hero in the flesh until I met Chea Vichea.”
Filmed over five years and following events as they happened, the documentary is seen as a gripping account of power and corruption, and the quiet resistance of a people facing overwhelming odds. The film has been put by Amnesty International on its list of the Top Ten Movies That Matter. To date, the film has not been allowed to screen in Cambodia.
The film’s producers say the documentary is “probably the only time in the case of Cambodia, where a film follows a single emblematic event like this from start to finish, as it unfolds” and it’s strength they say, is that by focusing the film on a single example, the story comes down to the human level, “which is necessary because the power that the Cambodian regime wields works on the human level.”
Chea Vichea was the leader of the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia. On 22 January 2004 he was shot dead on a Phnom Penh street. His murder, the subsequent bungled police investigation and wrongful imprisonment for five years of two innocent men by a corrupt and incompetent judiciary has always left unanswered the question, who killed Chea Vichea?
Cox first met Chea Vichea in 2003 when in Cambodia to cover that country’s national elections. “Heroes” said Cox, “are people who go forward despite being fully aware of the dangers that lie ahead. In this regard, Chea Vichea was the real deal.”
Charismatic and outspoken, Chea Vichea was a constant irritant to garment factory bosses and the government. On that fateful January day, he was sat reading at a newsstand near Phnom Penh’s historic Wat Lanka when he was gunned down at point blank range. In broad daylight, the gunman casually dismounted from the back of a Honda motorcycle. Not bothering to disguise his identity, and biding his time, the killer pretended to peruse newspapers before producing a pistol concealed in the waistband of his trousers. He fired three shots into Chea Vichea who was sitting on a low stool, hitting him first in the head, then the chest and left arm. Then, just as nonchalantly as he had arrived, the gunmen hopped on the waiting motorcycle before riding off with his accomplice.
News of the killing quickly spread. Police and journalists were soon on the scene. A near riot broke out as frenzied onlookers surrounded the fallen union leader, his blood spilling out over the footpath.
All the details of the killing were recounted to The Cambodia Daily, which covered the anniversary of his killing in a recent edition by the eyewitness owner of the newsstand, Vor Sothy. For fear of her safety she was granted political asylum overseas some months after the same killer of Chea Vichea returned to threaten her life should she testify.
Chea Vichea was a beacon, a man whose rallying speeches had united tens of thousands of poorly paid factory workers and brought about the first ever minimum wage for workers in Cambodia’s then rapidly expanding garment sector, which today employs over 300,000 people. Allied to the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, he had for years defied the government, and he had ignored threats angst his life along the way. Staff at The Cambodia Daily knew him well as he regularly visited their newsroom, usually to record evidence of his latest death threats, the final one of which was sent by text message.
Chea Vichea’s cold blooded killing made international news. Images from the funeral that followed of Buddhist priests crying as they watch the procession pass are haunting.
On 25 January 2004, his funeral procession counted mourners by the thousands, and there was intense pressure on the government to act.
Act they did and by 29 January the then Phnom Penh deputy police chief, the one-legged Heng Pov – now serving a 98-year prison sentence for crimes including murder, kidnapping and the assassination of a judge – predicted that the case, which he insisted was not political, would be solved within a week. True to his word days later two men, Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, were promptly rolled out in front of reporters as the supposed killers.
Tragedy turned to farce and then a travesty of justice, as the arrests were quickly discredited and the two suspects were labelled as scapegoats. Born Samnang recanted his confession, saying police had beaten it out of him and Vor Sothy, the newsstand’s owner at the murder scene, repeatedly told police these were not the men she’d seen that day.
Regardless of the police investigation lying in tatters, the prosecution of the two suspects proceeded anyway. But then in a startling turn of events, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court’s investigating judge, dismissed the case against Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, declaring a lack of sufficient evidence to prosecute them. Not to be outdone, however, the authorities had the judge removed by a government order, and only days later the Appeal Court overturned the original judge’s decision, ordering instead that formal charges be laid against the hapless suspects.
In what The Cambodia Daily described as “a memorably Kafkaesque moment”, the prosecuting judge said that the guilty verdict was based on eye witness accounts, though not a single witness ever took the stand, while the testimony newsstand owner’s testimony was ruled inadmissible, having already fled the country for fear of her own life.
The subsequent imprisonment of the two men sparked years of campaigning by human rights groups and international bodies demanding their release, and iterated calls for the government to conduct a proper investigation of Chea Vichea’s murder.
Meanwhile, in a separate but related course of events, Heng Pov fell spectacularly from grace amongst the security forces of the ruling party Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). Though closely aligned to Prime Minister Hun Sen, Heng Pov suddenly fled Cambodia amongst the torrid scene of political infighting, violence and intrigue in Cambodia at the time. While on the run, he claimed to have the lowdown on all manner of dirty dealings, including the real story behind Chea Vichea’s murder.
While hiding out in several Asian countries Heng Pov gave an interview in August 2006, in France’s weekly news magazine, L’Express, in which he said that Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun did not kill Chea Vichea but that he was pressured by the late National Police chief Hok Lundy, into framing the pair. He claimed that the four-star general even showed him the murder weapon, which had been supposedly used in an earlier political murder.
Cambodia's notorious and brutal police chief, Hok Lundy, was widely feared even within the ruling politburo. As chief enforcer of the CPP, he played a key part in mopping-up operations and extrajudicial executions following the bloody power struggle in Cambodia in 1997 between partners in the coalition government, when many royalist generals were killed in cold blood. According to The Guardian newspaper, diplomats in Phnom Penh routinely referred to Hok Lundy as a “thug”.
It’s rumoured that his nickname was Mister Pliers, reputedly for his technique of removing the tongues of outspoken opponents with said tool. Suspected of involvement in drug trafficking and organized crime by the US Drug Enforcement Agency, he was astoundingly given a medal by the FBI for his “support for the US global war on terrorism” and feted by the then US ambassador in 2006.
Heng Pov’s claims of an official cover-up in Chea Vichea’s murder were denied by the police who, by this stage had charged him in absentia, with a raft of serious charges.
In April 2007, the Court of Appeal pressed on with the prosecution, upholding the guilty verdict against Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, and also dismissing testimony by multiple witnesses who stated that they saw Born Samnang was miles away at a wedding when Chea Vichea was shot to death in Phnom Penh.
It was only in late 2008 – after the pair had served nearly five years in jail and amid a plethora of international pressure – that the Supreme Court granted the pair bail and ordered the Court of Appeal to reopen the case. However, despite the order the Phnom Penh Municipal Court has no further action has been taken to get to the bottom of his killing.
In the miasma that is the Cambodian justice system, the Interior Ministry claims that police have no orders from the court to reopen the Chea Vichea case and the Court of Appeal’s prosecutor, said he was “not in charge of the case,’ and the Municipal Court declined to comment.
In a full page newspaper advert to mark the eighth anniversary of the murder of Chea Vichea taken out in The Cambodia Daily, the Chea Vichea Fund for Workers’ Rights said that the Cambodian public may not know “officially” who killed Chea Vichea, but they have “a very clear idea who gave the order” and that the “real killers will be found the day Cambodia is ruled with rule of law.”
They may have a while to wait, according to the annual report of the US-based NGO Freedom House, which assesses the political rights and civil liberties of 195 countries and 14 territories, Cambodia was one of 48 countries deemed not free by the group which used the label to define countries where “basic political rights are abused, and basic civil liberties are widely and systematically denied.”