Chea Vichea and Cambodia’s Shame

An award for a documentary about the suspicious death of a union leader is a reminder of problems dogging Cambodia.

Next month, American filmmaker Brad Cox will travel from his base in Bangkok to New York, where he will receive a prestigious Peabody Award for a documentary he made on the assassination of the Cambodian trade union leader Chea Vichea in 2004.

Two men – Bom Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun – were charged with the murder, but a confession was later retracted amid claims they were tortured. Both men also had alibis and witnesses who said they were somewhere else at the time of the killing.

Both are widely held to be innocent, but the government insists they got the right people, prompting Cox to produce “Who Killed Chea Vichea?”  The movie is banned in Cambodia. Nor is the Cambodian government impressed with the award, claiming Peabody is “a politically motivated” institution, and that Cox’s film is little more than “propaganda.” (The Peabody Awards are the oldest electronic media awards in the world).

But as Cox was having a suit made for the big night, word had filtered through that another prominent environmental activist, Chut Vuthy, had been gunned down after photographing forests in Cambodia’s remote south, which is known for illegal logging.

“He reminds me quite a bit of labor leader Chea Vichea. Both were outspoken, both were willing to stand up for what they believe despite threats and harassment, and both paid the price for their convictions,” Cox said.

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“I think there’s a message in this for Cambodians, and that’s to keep your head down and your mouth shut. Most people take this message to heart. There are very few that don’t and that’s what makes guys like Chut Vuthy and Chea Vichea special.

“They gain the admiration of the Cambodian people, but also the ire of the powers that be. And as much as I hate to say it, I doubt this tragedy will be the last.” 

The Chut Vuthy killing is having explosive ramifications, and the parallels with the killing of Chea Vichea are enormous. Chut Vuthy had been prominent in uncovering the secret sell-off of state forests, illegal rosewood harvesting and land grabs in the area where a Chinese dam is being built.

His family, human rights groups and long time observers are troubled by the official explanation: That the military police officer who killed Chut Vuthy, after realizing what he had done, turned an AK-47 on himself and pulled the trigger twice.

Also present when Chut Vuthy was confronted by the group of military troops demanding his camera were two journalists. Neither saw who shot who, and they were eventually lucky to get out unscathed after the intervention of outside police. But the simple fact that such killings still take place speaks volumes about Cambodia. Sadly, the likes of Brad Cox have no shortage of subjects to work with.