A Close Look at Who Killed Chea Vichea?

By Abigail Licad
Posted on April 28, 2011

Who Killed Chea Vichea? airs this May on public television and follows the aftermath of Cambodian labor leader Chea Vichea’s assassination in 2004. The film exposes the political frame-up behind the conviction of two men, as well as the widespread corruption in Cambodia’s existing regime. ITVS’s Abigail Licad caught up with Director Bradley Cox to ask some questions.

Why did you choose to focus the film on the two murder suspects? I had met Vichea a week before the national election of 2003. He had just received a death threat and the police had strongly advised him to leave the country. Despite the threat, Vichea stayed. I was impressed by his courage.

Six months later to the day, he was murdered. The arrests of the two men by police was a circus — one of the most bizarre events I ever covered. It didn’t take a mind-reader to see there was something very wrong with this case. Someone needed to tell this story to the outside world, but when I looked around, I was the only one holding a camera. 

Considering the widespread corruption in Cambodia, did you fear for your safety while tracking down witnesses? I didn’t fear for my safety in Cambodia as much as I did for witnesses who agreed to be interviewed. As a foreigner, I could always leave if things got too hot. The witnesses had no such option, so I had to be very careful to minimize their exposure.  In most cases, witnesses were simply too scared to talk on camera. Luckily, a brave few did. In the case of the news-seller who had witnessed the murder, I had to take her out of the country almost immediately after I completed our interviews. Police met us at the airport. I brought some foreign journalists along to observe what was happening and we were allowed to board the plane.

 Unfortunately for the news-seller, she’s never been able to return to Cambodia.


You mention in another interview that your film is about "the arrogance of power." Can you elaborate? It's when the powers-that-be believe they're untouchable. In Cambodia, you see this arrogance from minor officials all the way to the Prime Minister. The Cambodian people face this arrogance all the time. And it's justified in Cambodia, since the foreign aid just keeps coming, no matter what they do. But arrogance can lead to miscalculations. They never thought they'd have to arrest anybody for the murder of Chea Vichea, or they would have picked the fall guys out beforehand instead of scrambling afterward. That led to a series of events including this film, which apparently bothers them enough that it's banned in Cambodia. Arrogance isn't a strength, it's a weakness. 

What new discovery about yourself as a filmmaker or filmmaking in general did you make in the process of shooting? I thought it would take me six months to make this movie, but it took on a life of its own. Six years later, it is finally ready to show to the world. It started out as a murder investigation and ended up as an indictment of a corrupt and dictatorial regime. It wasn’t easy to make, and frequently tested my level of commitment. But the Cambodian people have been getting the short end of the stick for too long. I guess that’s what sustained me. This is not a film about the Khmer Rouge and its sad history. It is a story about Cambodia now. Who Killed Chea Vichea? airs this May on Public Televisions (check local listings).  


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