Who Killed Chea Vichea?
Study areas: Southeast Asia, Cambodia, politics, political dissidence, labor movements
Who Killed Chea Vichea? is an investigative masterpiece. The film's director, Bradley Cox, and his producers Rich Garella and Jeffrey Saunders are to be thanked and congratulated for this arresting documentary. They have let the rest of the world in on what all Cambodians already know: namely, that their lives under the Hun Sen government, though no longer the disaster of the Khmer Rouge years from 1975 to 1979 nor the calamity of the civil war years that followed through the 1980s to 1993, are still caught up in a terrifying existence in which might makes right. The full-time nightmares of the killing fields past have lessened to become more occasional, more contextualized. They are limited to situations where power is challenged, or is felt to be so. But they are no less horrifying and brutal for all this. Those deemed in the way will pay. One former hit man, interviewed in shadow, says many Cambodian corpses have already been fed to the crocodiles. Not just ten or even fifty. Many more!
One comes away from this film understanding that the killer of the much loved Cambodian labor union president Chea Vichea on January 22nd, 2004, Chinese New Years, in front of a news stand near his home in Phnom Penh, has never been brought to justice. In fact, the courts, in a compounding act of injustice, falsely convicted two innocent men of the crime. What makes this film work is its convincing presentation of the background of these two events: Chea Vichea's assassination in broad daylight and the trial and subsequent appeals of the two convenient scapegoats, Born Samnang and Sok Sam Ouen. Director Cox spent five years in Cambodia and had already been interviewing Chea Vichea in the period leading up to the 2003 elections. He knew of his staunch commitment to workers’ rights in Cambodia and also of the threats to Vichea's life resulting from his fight for those rights. Vichea had opted to stay in Cambodia and support its 200,000 garment workers, whose wages were only around US$45 a month, in their demands for better pay and working conditions rather than flee. He had allied with the opposition leader Sam Rainsy against Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodia Peoples Party, CPP. In the July 2003 national election, no side had gotten a majority and the three leading parties, CPP, Sam Rainsy, and the Royalists, spent months bargaining over how to form a coalition government. Eventually the Royalists sided with the CPP, and Sam Rainsy lost out. Then came Chea Vichea's killing.
Knowing all of this, upon getting word of the shooting, Cox went straight to the scene of the crime and eventually interviewed the newsstand operator, who was the only eye witness to the crime, and others. She confirmed that the official suspect did not look at all like the actual killer in front of her store that fatal day. She has since been given asylum abroad and now lives outside Cambodia. Interviews with people who were with Born Samnang outside Phnom Penh on the day of the shooting were very convincing, as were their in-court testimonies. His alibi is sound. The same is true for the other suspect Sok Sam Ouen, the alleged driver. But in this case it was more difficult for Cox to get witnesses to talk on film. A palpable fear rules life in Cambodia.
Fortunately, Cox pursued the investigation for several more years by talking to lawyers, human rights advocates, family members, workers , police, former police, and the very insightful politician Sam Rainsy himself, with whom Chea Vichea's had been allied. It is a great testimony to Cox's savvy and skill that these interviews were all frank and very revealing. Following the case through the appeals process, during which the government still could not offer any of its own witnesses and was clearly relying on coerced confessions long since retracted and discredited, Cox successfully highlights the many pieces of the puzzle that point to those close allies of Hun Sen who may have in fact ordered the assassination of Chea Vichea. Two ranking police officials in Phnom Penh in particular are singled out. In a follow-up segment Cox notes that one of these later died in a helicopter crash and the other has fallen out of favor and is now serving a ninety two year sentence for corruption. The two accused of Vichea's killing have since been released pending re-trial, though they still stand convicted of a crime they never committed. Both still insist on their innocence and want to be cleared.
One hopes that this film and other human rights efforts focusing how the Chea Vichea case was handled have made some impact, perhaps causing the rulers to want to quietly back away from the original verdict. But we may never know “Who Killed Chea Vichea.” A good guess, never mentioned in the film, is that “the real killer,” another loose end in the dirty work of the powerful, has long since been fed to some of Cambodia' s never starving crocodiles.
A very nice touch in the film is that it opens with a wintery scene in which Chea Vichea' s wife, now living in Finland, walks through a snow covered field bundled up in a thick winter coat holding a large framed portrait photo of her husband. Her two children similarly bundled in parkas do the same. When her daughter asks why her father was killed if he was a good man, the response is that “there is no law in our country.” I too have heard this often from Cambodian friends and relatives. Sadly, Cambodia today is still a tormented case of “Khmer Rouge Light.” The abrupt switch from snowy Finland to tropical Cambodia gives a strong visual sense of what it takes to gain a safe distance from the misuse of power in Cambodia.
This year, 2013, there will be yet another election over the recently cremated bones and ashes of beloved former King Norodom Sihanouk, as well as over those of the millions of victims of recent oppressions, those of many revered Buddhist saints, and, yes, let us never forget, over the cremated bones and ashes as well of the late and beloved Chea Vichea. If the dead could vote, Cambodia would progress. Can the next five years see the beginnings of justice in Cambodia? Can the world pay attention? Surely this film will help to move its viewers in this direction.
You must see this film and show it to others. It has been banned in Cambodia, but Cambodians are not the ones who need to see it. They already know. Everyone needs to see it to understand how injustice affects us all.
Two additional points. The extras provided with the DVD for this film are very informative and add to our understanding of how Cambodia has failed to have an independent judiciary. Also, the stories of other people who appear in the movie are given, and provide useful updates on their various fates.
Who Killed Chea Vichea? is available online from the distributor's website.
Last Updated: August 16, 2013