Six alleged protesters in Svay Rieng province’s Bavet town were arrested on Wednesday, provincial police confirmed yesterday, risking a fragile peace as garment workers return to work this morning after more than a week of unrest.
Since last week, thousands of protesting garment workers in Bavet have clashed repeatedly with police over demands to increase the minimum wage. The fresh arrests come amid demands from protesters to release four garment workers arrested last Friday for allegedly pelting a factory with rocks.
Kim Lai, provincial penal police director, said the six were arrested for damaging a fire truck during the worst of the clashes, which occurred on Tuesday and resulted in two police officers being injured by rock-throwing protesters.
“We knew clearly that they were involved because I was standing there watching them,” he said, adding that the six were all truck drivers who drive garment workers to their factories and that there was video evidence of their involvement.
Rights group Licadho identified the men as Loek Vicheat, 29; Pen Sambath, 28; Keav Pros, 33; Lang Phally, 20; Sous Yeat, 43; and Teav Phalla, 47.
Som Sophy, the 38-year-old sister of Loek Vicheat, confirmed that her brother was arrested Wednesday morning.
“Commune police asked him to come learn about the Traffic Law at the commune police station at about 11am, but he did not come home after that,” she said, proclaiming his innocence.
Thousands of garment workers from Bavet’s Manhattan and Tai Seng special economic zones began striking last week, demanding next year’s minimum wage for the sector be raised to $148 rather than the $140 mandated by the government in October.
The apparently leaderless protests, marred by allegations of violence on both sides, quickly spiralled out of control.
In a bid to smooth tensions, local authorities ordered on Tuesday night that all garment workers stay home from work on Wednesday and Thursday. They also promised to free four workers arrested last week on condition of bail.
But the latest arrests have raised concerns that violence could flare once again.
“These [arrests] contradict the agreement that unions, factories and the authorities made to improve the situation; it will pour gasoline on the fire, because authorities have not yet released the four workers, but now they have arrested six more, so workers will get even more angry,” said Nouth Bopinnaroath, provincial coordinator for Licadho.
Chea Oddom, provincial representative of the Cambodian Union for the Movement of Workers, had similar concerns.
“If they want the situation to be calm, they have to release the four and stop arresting more workers,” he said.
“The workers will be unhappy when they learn their drivers got arrested, and they will go on strike to demand their release.”
However, Ken Loo, spokesman for the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, brushed off concerns that the situation in Bavet could re-escalate due to the latest string of arrests.
“If they broke the law, then they should be punished,” he said. “I think that it is a small group organising and inciting the workers. If this small group is identified and arrested, then the situation will go back to normal.”
Additional reporting by Charles Rollet