June 7, 2010 - New York, NY - The Cambodian government has banned the acclaimed documentary Who Killed Chea Vichea?, U.S. director Bradley Cox's film that investigates the mysterious 2004 assassination of Chea Vichea, one of Cambodia's most influential union leader who spent years fighting for increased wages and improved working conditions for the nation's 300,000 garment workers. The movie, which had its European premiere last month at the Cannes Independent Film Festival, has received accolades from festivals around the world and was named one of Amnesty International's Top Ten Movies That Matter.
In May, in honor of International Labor Day, trade unionists attempted to hold the film's Cambodian premiere at the very location where Vichea was murdered, but riot police raided the scene, and dismantled and seized the screens. The Cambodian government, led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, immediately declared the film an illegal import and announced that it intends to prevent any screenings "wherever they are held." Asserts one of the premiere's organizers, "If the authorities acted like this, it means that some officials could have been involved in Chea Vichea's murder."
The making of the film was no easy feat. For much of the past decade, Bradley Cox-an award-winning activist-documentarian who is currently receiving treatment for a gunshot wound in Bangkok where he has been covering the Thai military crackdown-has been living in Southeast Asia, unraveling the mystery behind Vichea's murder and other newsworthy stories. Cox was on the scene with his camera just moments after the fatal shots to Vichea, and conducted his own investigation over the next five years.
In an unprecedented look at the inner workings of one of the world's most corrupt states, Cox's documentary reconstructs a police plot that framed two innocent men who were sentenced to 20 years each. Several of the witnesses who appear in the film have fled the country or gone into hiding for safety reasons. Cox also became persona non grata in Cambodia, eventually having to leave for his own safety. To the surprise of many in the human rights community, the murder case was reopened in late 2008 and the Supreme Court provisionally released the two men on January 1st, 2009.
"Did the courts simply come to their senses and suddenly discover unprecedented independence from the government? Hell no. But the release of Who Killed Chea Vichea? loomed," said Eric Pape, a former Newsweek correspondent who has reported on Cambodia for fifteen years. "Remember, Cambodian police never identified any other suspects. I imagine there's a reason for that."
The Cambodian authorities maintain the right to seize any media "that is produced or imported illegally," and, after the attempted screening of Who Killed Chea Vichea?, Cambodian police repeatedly tried to confiscate the film from union organizers. Organizations in Cambodia regularly screen imported films without direct government approval, from French films at the Centre Culturel Français to popular Hollywood or American independent films at the Foreign Correspondents Club. The authorities denied that their decision had any connection to politics, but there is no other politically charged film that has been banned in Cambodia since the 1980's.
Cambodia is a major recipient of foreign aid from Western countries including the United States, the UK, France and Australia. Its constitution was written with the help of foreign donors and guarantees "freedom of expression, press, publication and assembly."
"This is what governments do when they don't want their own people to know the facts and when they can't afford to show weakness, even for an instant," said Rich Garella, one of the film's producers, and a former managing editor of The Cambodia Daily.
"I would encourage Cambodian government officials to practice what they preach," said Cox. The government's action, he added, is "the very stuff of dictatorships."
Who Killed Chea Vichea? is a co-production of Loud Mouth Films Limited and the Independent Television Service (ITVS), with funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB).