On December 29, more than 100,000 Cambodians – garment workers, teachers, farmers and students from all over the country – marched through the streets of the capital calling for Hun Sen, our long-serving prime minister-dictator, to step down or allow an independent investigation into the flawed national elections that took place in July.
The massive demonstration was the culmination of months of non-violent rallies and marches led by the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). It was also the most significant challenge to Hun Sen’s 28-year reign of exploitation and corruption.
And he could not tolerate it. He would sooner draw blood than enact real reform.
For almost three decades, Hun Sen – a Khmer Rouge defector who was put in power after Vietnam toppled Pol Pot’s regime in 1979 – has convinced foreign governments to pour aid into the country, even while the ruling Cambodian People’s Party has rigged elections, sold off our natural resources, imprisoned journalists, union leaders, opposition politicians and human rights activists.
Some 250,000 people have been evicted because of land concessions that favour the rich and well-connected.
On July 28, vast swaths of the country – civil servants, indebted farmers, educated youth from both the cities and the countryside – tried to vote for change. But the election was neither free nor fair.
A recent report by the Electoral Reform Alliance, a group of independent local and international nongovernmental organisations, describes massive irregularities, including fraudulent voter registries, which may have disenfranchised 1.25 million eligible voters.
So the peaceful protests began.
Factory workers joined the movement a few weeks ago. About 500,000 Cambodians are garment workers; most are employed by factories owned by foreigners with the backing of high-ranking Cambodian officials or the military and produce clothes for international brands like H&M, Nike, Gap and Adidas.
After the government refused to raise the minimum wage to $160 per month, some unions called for a general strike and workers started staging non-violent sit-ins in front of the Labor Ministry and the Council of Ministers.
Then, on January 3, in an industrial area on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, hundreds of military policemen and municipal police forces opened fire with AK-47s and handguns on a crowd of protesters.
At least four people were killed and more than 29 were injured, mostly garment workers. The human rights group Licadho called the shootings “the worst state violence against civilians to hit Cambodia in 15 years”.
The next day, police forces, municipal security guards and thugs wearing motorcycle helmets and red armbands stormed Freedom Park, a park the government had designated as a haven for peaceful protest. They evicted its occupants, wielding axes, hammers, metal pipes and wooden sticks.
They then destroyed what had become, for the country’s myriad marginalised citizens, a rare zone for free speech, a meeting place, a sanctuary. They tore down the stage and levelled a Buddhist altar.
They smashed loudspeakers, metal donation boxes and first-aid tents.
Fear, and memories of past crackdowns, rapidly spread beyond Freedom Park that afternoon as thousands of security forces patrolled Phnom Penh to break up public gatherings and threaten bystanders, while military helicopters, newly purchased from China, buzzed overhead.
That same day the Interior Ministry revoked freedom of assembly. And the municipal court issued a summons for CNRP president Sam Rainsy the CNRP’s vice-president Kem Sokha and the head of the Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association, Rong Chhun, to appear next Tuesday for questioning about incitement of criminal acts and social disturbance.
Yet blame for the chaos and the violence lies with the government.
On December 20, after the CNRP announced it would call for sit-ins on main thoroughfares if the stalemate continued, Hun Sen issued this warning: “Blocking roads is blocking one’s own blood vein.”
The government, he added, “would not allow action that would jeopardise national security, and I would urge precaution of the third hand”, a euphemism for government repression. It wouldn’t be the first time the authorities had sent in agents provocateurs among the protesters in order to cause disturbances that could then justify the government’s intervention.
Despite the government’s attempt to scare them into silence, the Cambodian people remain strong and united in their desire to see their country move out of the shadow of the Khmer Rouge and into the light that is genuine democracy.
In this, they deserve more support than they have received. The international community, long content to take Cambodia’s apparent economic and social stability at face value, must now recognise the brutality of this government’s methods and help put an end to them and their underlying causes.
Foreign governments could provide technical and financial support for electoral reforms, including reform of the voter-registration system, so that a new election could be held within two years.
An investigation must be conducted into the government’s use of lethal force against protesters, perhaps by the International Criminal Court itself.
Foreign companies also have a role to play, by easing the despair of under-paid factory workers: If they reduced their profit margins just slightly, the workers could be paid a living wage without jeopardising Cambodia’s long-term competitiveness in the garment sector.
Gap, Adidas and other companies took a welcome step last Tuesday by condemning the use of force in an open letter to the government and calling for “a robust minimum wage review mechanism based on international good practices”.
Freedom Park now stands empty, save for the military police who watch over it. Must it become a symbol of another dark day in Cambodia’s history, made darker by those who watched and did nothing?
Mu Sochua, a former minister of women’s affairs, is a member-elect of the National Assembly for the Cambodia National Rescue Party.