Who killed Chea Vichea? The question remains unanswered not just for the man’s family but also American audiences who attended the premiere last weekend of a vivid film about Cambodia’s politics and the slain union leader’s struggle for labor rights.
“Who Killed Chea Vichea?” debuted at Maryland’s second Frederick Film Festival in an effort to attract international support for the cause of justice for workers and Cambodians.
Director Brad Cox said murders of unionists and journalists, a biased court system and incompetent police continue to plague Cambodia and need international attention.
“What I think the first step in these Western countries should be is acknowledging that Cambodia is not a democracy,” Brad Cox told VOA Khmer. “It’s run by the very few at the very top, and to suggest that it’s a democracy is a myth.”
That myth is convenient for Western countries to accept, “because they don’t want to confront or upset the government,” Cox said. “If they can at least acknowledge that these things happen, that would be a first step in trying to make thing better there.”
“Who Killed Chea Vichea?” examines the competition for power among the country’s main political parties, the Cambodian People’s Party, Funcinpec and the Sam Rainsy Party, following general elections in 2003.
At the time, Cambodia’s workers, led by Chea Vichea, were demanding better salaries and working conditions in tumultuous, massive demonstrations.
Chea Vichea was shot dead in broad daylight in January 2004 as he read a newspaper near Phnom Penh’s Wat Langka pagoda. The two assailants escaped, but two other men, widely believed innocent, were promptly arrested, charged and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
The two men, Born Samnang and Sok Sameoun, spent five years in jail before they were provisionally released in a Supreme Court decision in 2008. No further arrests have been made.
“Who Killed Chea Vichea?” does not answer its own question, but Cox said the labor leader’s prominence as an activist meant an order for his assassination “would have to come from very high. And the way the government is set up, there are very few people who are very high.”
People are still afraid to talk about the killing, Cox said, and the courts have moved slowly in bringing their attention to the case.
The film, however, is raising awareness and prompting viewers to ask their own questions.
“When I saw this documentary, I felt emotional and painful, but don’t know what else we can do to help,” said Khalarath Bloesch-Sek, who saw the film in the town of Frederick. “There seems not much we can do to help improve Cambodia. I hope that the younger generation will stand up and lead the country forward to be a better place.”
Jason Judd, one of the film festival’s organizers, was also a colleague of Chea Vichea.
“Leading a union is very difficult; one must be brave,” he told VOA Khmer. “And in Cambodia there are not many union leaders like Chea Vichea.”