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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Blame game after deadly riot

Blame game after deadly riot

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June 14: Police arrest a demonstrator near the Terratex factory. Two people died the previous day.

F INGER-pointing is underway just one week after violence at a city garment factory left one worker and one policeman dead. Unions accused each other of starting the riot, while the government tried to blame the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP).

In turn, the SRP accused the government of trying to use the violence to silence independent voices ahead of the election. The SRP was lined up for blame along with Funcinpec and the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia (FTUWKC), whose president Chea Vichea is involved with the Cambodian Watchdog Committee (CWC).

The CWC spoke out against the government after the January 29 anti-Thai riots.

"This is not the first time they've pointed the finger," said SRP leader Sam Rainsy. "Just look at the January 29 anti-Thai riots-they immediately pointed the finger at me. They are scared and will use any excuse to crush opposition with the election coming up."

Koul Panha, from the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, shared Rainsy's concerns.

"There are more riots closer to the elections as one political party tries to manipulate another," he said. "The message [the government] is sending is 'don't participate' because it will eliminate demonstrations with a violent response, which obstructs the people's freedom."

The strike at Terratex Garment Factory began on June 9 when members of the National Independent Federation Textile Union of Cambodia (NIFTUC) walked out after negotiations over higher salaries and reinstating a fired union member collapsed.

The precise order of events on June 13 is unclear, but strikers threw stones at police, and police opened fire on the crowd. One worker was shot dead, and a policeman was killed by a thrown stone. Recriminations began immediately, with one official from the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor telling the Post he believed the SRP or Funcinpec was to blame, although he admitted there was no supporting evidence.

"I think they had involvement, but I just think that because they're the opposition," said the official, who refused to be named.

Funcinpec's election spokesperson Ok Socheat denied any involvement, while Rainsy said he was pounding the election trail in the provinces at the time.

"The SRP had no involvement and the truth will prevail because people are not stupid," Rainsy argued. "They will fail in their attempt to blame the opposition."

The FTUWKC's Vichea was brought in for questioning by Meanchey district governor Chhun Chhorn on June 16. Chhorn said residents' complaints indicated that Vichea was responsible for the riots, because he had laid flowers by the body of the dead worker. NIFTUC's president, Morm Nhim, had previously appeared on Bayon TV blaming Vichea's union for the rioting.

"I expected to be questioned because they [frequently] blame me," said Vichea. "The government is angry with me ... I've led strikes for better conditions for workers many times. The government doesn't care about the workers-it just wants to show it has power over the people, especially before the election."

Rainsy said Vichea's questioning was part of the government's attempt to stamp out dissent as the July 27 vote approaches.

"They want to silence independent organizations in all spheres and crack down on any ... that don't serve their interests," he said.

George McLeod, the international liaison officer for FTUWKC, blamed Nhim's "aggressive statements" for the violence. But NIFTUC rejected claims that Nhim was responsible, and she said she would take action against any allegations of corruption.

At a press conference on June 17, government officials blamed unnamed 'extremists' for the violence. Om Yentieng, a senior advisor to Hun Sen and head of the Cambodian Human Rights Committee (CHRC), said it was related to political parties, but refused to provide specifics.

Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak said extremists wanted to undermine the government before the ASEAN meeting, adding that it was up to the courts to gather evidence and prosecute offenders.

Police efforts to placate the demonstrators have also raised concern. Dr Wilhelm Trieber, a legal advisor at the Khmer Institute for Democracy (KID), said the law specifically states what measures the police should take.

"Water spray, tear gas and attack dogs should be employed first. Shooting is the very final measure, and should only be done if the police had no other choice in protecting their lives," he said.

The right to freedom of assembly topped the agenda before the riots.

"The right to assemble is ... inherent," said KID's Trieber, adding that the Law on Demonstration stated that the authorities could ban a demonstration if they "think" it will be a threat to public security. But, he added, "thinking is not enough-there has to be evidence".

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