|Phnom Penh, Cambodia – As hundreds of heavily-armed military police began moving in to quell protesting garment workers Friday morning, Neang Davin looked on nervously.
“Last night I didn’t join anything, I was just driving my motorbike and stopped to watch. The police arrived, they didn’t ask anything, they just went in and began beating us,” said Davin, leaning on a bamboo stick for support. “Even though we ran into the market, we weren’t confronting them; they just went in and started beating us. They hit me on the back with a baton.”
Clashes between police and protesters that began after midnight Friday on the outskirts of Phnom Penh escalated Saturday morning leaving at least four shot dead and 23 seriously injured.
While the government lay the blame at the feet of protesters who pushed back security forces with rocks, Molotov cocktails and homemade weapons, none of those injured were police, admitted Military Police Spokesman Kheng Tito.
Instead, it was striking workers and bystanders who bore the brunt of an unusually harsh retaliation by police who appear to have grown weary of peacefully breaking up the protests that have roiled Phnom Penh for the past week.
Garment worker woes
On December 24, workers began striking en masse after the government announced it would be raising the minimum wage from $80 a month to $95 – an offer that fell far short of unions call for $160 a month. By the time the Ministry of Labour caved a week later and agreed to an extra $5 a month boost, the genie was out of the bottle. Years of chronic underpayment and poor working conditions had pushed at least half of the nation’s estimated 600,000 workers into the streets.
Separately, at the behest of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, some 80 percent of factories voluntarily shut their gates fearing violence; a move that has sent a $5bn industry into a near standstill.
“The unions cannot control [the situation] at this moment,” said Khun Tharo, a programme officer with Solidarity Centre, an American labour rights group. “It’s going to affect the industry as a whole.”
Garments account for Cambodia’s largest export industry. Brands like H&M, Puma, Adidas, Nike, the Gap and Walmart source from Cambodia, which set up its garment industry in the late 1990s to employ a unique UN-monitoring system that was meant to ensure factories were unusually well-run.
Instead, conditions and real wages have plummeted over the past decade, leading to mounting desperation among workers for whom 72 hour work-weeks are not unusual. After elections in July saw the poorest showing yet for Cambodia’s strong-arm prime minister, garment workers have grown increasingly vocal in their call for higher wages.
“In terms of the general level of unrest, we haven’t seen anything like this in Cambodia for over 15 years, since anti-government protests in 1998. But the protests we are seeing now appear larger, and broader in terms of the issues of concern and those taking part,” said Amnesty International Cambodia researcher Rupert Abbott.
While those demonstrations for the most part have been nonviolent, increasing pushback by authorities has amped up protesters, said Thun Saray, president of local rights group Adhoc.
“When they started to organise demonstrations, they used nonviolent ways but the armed forces came and used violence against the protesters, that’s what made them angry,” he said.
On Thursday, soldiers from an elite battalion of the armed forces moved in on a demonstration that took place outside a factory from which the Gap, Old Navy, and Banana Republic sources. In addition to beating an unknown number of workers, they arrested 15 people – including five monks and the leader of the informal sector union. The monks were released, but ten were sent to court today and face charges of inciting violence, said Saray.
As night fell, said Saray, there were reports that police would be going in to clear the street – which had taken on the look of a battleground by mid-afternoon.
“They plan to continue to crack down tonight, try to clean up the street of Veng Sreng because the protesters may try to demonstrate on the street…that’s why we’re concerned about more violence.”
Ek Tha, a government spokesman, said escalating violence came only after authorities were “provoked.”
“Local authorities did their best to protect the interest of the private and public property. As far as I understand, there were some troublemakers who provoked the problems, so the authority need to take law and order in place to safeguard the private and public property,” he said.
But Abbott said the use of such force flew in the face of international rights standards.
“If an assembly turns violent, as appears to have been the case today in Cambodia, security forces should use only such force as is strictly necessary and to the extent required for the performance of their duty. They may use firearms only when less dangerous means are not practicable and only to the minimum extent necessary for defence against an imminent threat of death or serious injury.”
Among those injured was 23-year-old Kieng Sinak, who was being treated at a local hospital for a piece of shrapnel that had pierced his eye.
A doctor told family members his eye would not recover.
“We are so poor, I don’t know how we can spend the money for surgery,” said his brother-in-law Roeun Sayeth.
Like many garment workers, Sinak’s rice-farming family relies on his scanty wages to support a number of members.
“He sends money every month, he supports three of his siblings and his parents,” said Sayeth.
“I’m not sure he will recover enough after surgery to be able to return to work,” said his cousin Chor Sokley.
A few hundred metres away from Sinak’s room, family members of those shot dead gathered outside the hospital’s mortuary for news of their relatives.
Blinking back tears, the sister-in-law of deceased Yean Rithy said she was unsure how his wife and two-year-old child would fare.
Like many others, she was aghast at suggestions the protesters were to blame.
“The protesters just have empty hands. The police have guns. So how could they be at fault?”