Veng Sreng Boulevard, in the capital’s Por Sen Chey district, is home to garment workers who sew for brands like Gap and H&M in the 61 factories within the Canadia Industrial Park complex. Late last week, strikes by employees asking for a minimum wage of $160 per month erupted in violence. At least four protesters were killed and many more injured as security forces fired live rounds into the crowd. Others were arrested – 23 remain in prison but have not been charged. Dozens of businesses were damaged in the chaotic aftermath. Nearby, hospitals were crowded with the injured and their families. Here, seven individuals caught up in the events tell their stories of the violence, the repercussions and the fear-filled days that followed. Poppy McPherson and Will Jackson report.
It had been an unremarkable Friday and Dr Oung Makara was eating pork and rice for lunch at the Preah Kossamak Hospital’s cafeteria when he was paged to treat a gunshot victim from the garment factory clashes.
The 26-year-old male patient was conscious but bleeding profusely. A single bullet had entered his stomach, and exited his lower back leaving two finger sized holes. Inside, his intestines had been pierced or severed at four different points.
Three others injured were also brought to the hospital, but none required surgery.
A softly-spoken but veteran doctor with 15 years experience specialising in stomach surgery, Dr Makara was familiar with ballistic trauma injuries. He had trained at a hospital in Battambang that regularly dealt with gunshot wounds – especially in the final years of the civil war – as well as horrific trauma from unexploded ordnance.
“I operated on many gunshot wounds before in Battambang,” he said. “However, only a few since I arrived in Phnom Penh.”
In the operating theatre, the two anesthetists put the patient under before Dr Makara and two fellow surgeons, assisted by three nurses, went to work.
They cut a 25 centimetre vertical incision in the man’s stomach to give them access, cleaned the cavity of blood and then stitched up the intestines.
“The whole operation took almost three hours,” Dr Makara said.
Dr Makara said after visiting the patient he seemed to be on the mend.
The intestines would heal within a couple of weeks and the stitches dissolve after about two months. The exterior wounds were more serious, however, and would need close attention for the next month. Dr Makara said it was impossible to compare Cambodian hospitals to those in Western countries however the surgeons at Kossamak had the basic tools they needed.
“Sometimes we have to improvise but we make do,” he said. “If the hospital had more and better instruments I think we could treat more people.” WJ
Little more than a boy, 21-year-old Mao Sokourm looked thin and gaunt on Friday afternoon. He lay in a foetal position on a hospital bed in the emergency department of the Khmer-Soviet Friendship hospital. The bullet was still inside.
He has worked for more than a year at Sunway Zoo, one of the many factories inside Canadia complex, making shoes.
“I feel very hurt with the government and authorities that gave a bad reaction,” he said, as friends held up an x-ray which showed the bullet, wedged in the bone of his upper thigh.
He doesn’t know if he will be able to return to work. “I have no other skills for another job. I have to wait and see whether I can ever go back to work.” PM
Lay Kimleng owns a small snack shop on Veng Sreng Boulevard. She, her husband and four-year-old daughter have lived on the street for three years without trouble. But on Friday, an angry crowd attacked them in their own home, mistakenly believing them to have sheltered a police sniper. Rioters pelted rocks, stole money and burned a tuk-tuk that was used to transport goods.
After the crowd had dispersed, the storefront metal grate was pulled down, and had a rip in the middle. Speaking through the crack, Kimleng sobbed and said she was too sad and scared to come out. “I did nothing wrong,” she said.
On Monday morning, three days after the attack, the shopfront was open. Shelves had been ransacked and debris lay on the ground. A handful of people helped Kimleng carry out repairs.
“They destroyed everything,” Kimleng said.
There was a bright red mark on her chin, where she had been hit by a rock, and bruising still visible on her neck. She estimates the total damage to the shop will cost her $12,000.
“I can’t imagine what a loss this will be,” she said.
The trouble started early on Friday morning. Shortly after workers heard the sound of gunshots – police using live rounds on protesters – they spotted someone on the roof of Kimleng’s house.
A rumour spread that there was a police sniper inside, and someone posted pictures of the house on Facebook, adding that there were security forces inside. Photos from the scene appear to show police holding rifles on top of some of the houses.
Kimleng said the only person on her roof was a young boy who works in the store.
“They thought he was a spy, so they broke inside,” she said
The violence escalated after word got out that the owners were Vietnamese. Kimleng said she was ethnic Khmer, from Kampong Cham.
“We are Khmer, but the workers said we were Vietnamese because they saw the Metfone sign outside the shop,” she said.
The mobile network firm is owned by Viettel, a subsidiary of the Vietnamese military
“I am still afraid, and in the future, I don’t want to see a day like this again. If the workers want to strike again, they should do it peacefully. The authorities should not use violence. The government should give us compensation.” PM
In her two by four metre shared room, Cheam Sokorng sat with her knees close to her chest. She wore patterned leggings and blue and pink nail polish. Her long straight hair was dyed reddish at the ends. She looked at the ground as she spoke.
“Everybody left January 3,” she said.
On Monday, Sokorng and her sister were two of the few garment workers who decided to stay behind after last week’s violence. While she was desperate to escape to her family home in Kampong Thom province, the $15 cost was too much for someone who makes $85 per month.
Behind her, the walls were plastered with the smiling faces of celebrity Cambodian couples. “My baby” was inked, in English, on one of the walls. Sokorng is divorced, with one young son she rarely sees. A snapshot of the two of them walking on a sunny day was glued to the wall.
She spoke to her family on Thursday night, when the trouble started. When they asked why she didn’t come back, she reassured them, saying it would all be OK soon. But she fled her home around midnight, and slept at a friend’s house in Toul Tompong.
“I felt very scared, and heard rumours that the authorities were trying to arrest people in their houses, so I had to move,” she said.
On Friday morning, she returned to find most of her friends gone. On her way to the market in the morning, she heard the sound of gunfire and hurried back inside. She locked the door and hid with her sister in their room for the entirety of the next day.
While she believes in the $160 per month payrise, the outcome of the strike has left her without much hope.
“I already know the answer, it would take a long time to get that money, and the government won’t offer it anyway,” she said. PM
Mother-of-one Sok Sreymom lives with two other couples in one of the identical one-room houses off Veng Sreng Boulevard. Yellow with blue roofs, they look like toy versions of the factories in Canadia Industrial Park, where Sreymom works.
Her rented room, already home to seven, was a refuge for protesters fleeing arrest over the weekend, according to Phorn Sokna, 39, who also lives there with her husband, who works as a motodop, and two children. “Some people who don’t rent here, we allowed them to go inside,” she said on Monday.
The two women hid from the shooting outside, while their husbands took part in the protest.
“I heard violence happening and came back to the room but my husband went quickly over there when he heard the sound of fighting,” said Sreymom.
The authorities chased after workers, right to the edge of the complex where they live, she added.
She thinks many of her friends will not return, “because they’re scared of the acts of the authorities who shoot the workers”.
She knows some of the men who were arrested, including one of the union leaders.
On Monday, his wife still didn’t know where he was. “She thinks he is probably being taken to be killed,” said Sreymom.
“They just told her that they have taken him to prison and she isn’t allowed to see him or talk to him,” she added.
Rumours flew throughout the days that followed.
“I heard that on Saturday night the police would come to arrest each man from his room but they did not come,” said Sreymom, adding that other places weren’t so lucky.
She pointed in the direction of another accommodation block down the road, which is now empty. At the entrance, a woman who was hanging out her washing said all the men who rented the rooms were gone. She was too frightened to say anything more. PM
On Friday, Noun Somneang threw herself into the thick of the clashes. She dragged wounded acquaintances into tuk-tuks and ferried them to hospital. But on Monday, the 30-year-old, a garment worker, was terrified. She hadn’t left her accommodation in days.
“I was the one who was braver and standing up more than the others and now I’m the one who fears more than the others,” she said.
On Friday morning, the mother-of-one scooped up 12 wounded protesters, put them in tuk-tuks and took them to the local hospitals. “I felt awful when I went to the hospital, with my shirt full of blood,” she said. “We had to take them very quickly because we were afraid if they fell down on the road the police would take them,” she said.
First, they tried to take the injured to a local pharmacy, she said. The clinic was later wrecked by protesters who looted the building after it was alleged that the staff refused to treat the injured.
“I don’t know why the clinic did that to the workers,” she said. “If someone was seriously injured and they didn’t have the skills [to treat them], that would be fine, but some were hurt just a little bit.”
Around 7pm or 8pm, she returned home, and grew increasingly afraid as rumours spread around the living quarters. “I just stayed home, cooked food, didn’t go out. We had had that experience, so we didn’t walk out the same as before,” she said.
On Monday, she wouldn’t speak to any reporter who didn’t have an English-language business card, for fear of arrest. “I don’t trust Khmer publications,” she said, adding that some of the journalists “pretend to be reporters but they are spies”.
From Svay Rieng, Somneang said she had wanted to return to be with her four-year-old daughter but couldn’t afford to spend the 15,000 riel the journey would cost.
Besides, she said, she wanted to stay to “get an answer from the authorities why they did this.” She had worked at a factory within the complex, International Fashion Loyal, for 12 years.
She said she had heard rumours that further protests were banned, but said she wanted to continue the fight.
“We will do it again in the future, but we have to wait for the CNRP leaders and the union, and wait a while, but we will do it again in the future.” PM