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Cambodia: Labor Union Leader Killed - 2004-01-22

The outspoken president of Cambodia's largest labor union was shot dead at a Phnom Penh newsstand Thursday morning. After his death, activist groups hailed Chea Vichea for his efforts to improve rights for Cambodia's garment workers and demanded that police bring his killers to justice.

Dozens of mourners gathered at the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia office Thursday morning for a Buddhist ceremony for 36-year-old Chea Vichea. Hours earlier, the union president had been reading a newspaper on a busy Phnom Penh street when he was shot dead.

Newsstand owner Va Sothy said a young man in a white shirt shot Mr. Vichea three times with a handgun, hopped on a motorcycle, and was driven away by a second man. Mr. Vichea died instantly, after having been hit by bullets in the hand, his head and his chest.

Police said they did not yet have a motive for the killing of the union leader, who often came in conflict with authorities and factory owners by organizing demonstrations. A statement by the Free Trade Union denounced the attack and demanded that authorities find the killers.

Mr. Vichea was an outspoken critic of the government and a firm supporter of the Sam Rainsy Party. Press statements by Mr. Vichea's union, The Alliance of Democrats and the Khmer Institute of Democracy say he had done much to advance worker's rights in Cambodia.

Khem Sokha is the director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights. He says the union leader had received many death threats for his activities mobilizing garment workers. Mr. Sokha says the murder was an attempt to derail those efforts.

The newsstand owner, Ms. Sothy, says Mr. Vichea came to her shop every morning to read the paper and had told her he would likely get killed one day. She recalled she had told him jokingly not to get shot at her newsstand.