The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party yesterday withdrew from talks with the government scheduled for today in protest against soldiers cracking down on monks and demonstrators during a garment worker strike in the capital.
Special Forces Airborne 911 Unit soldiers with metal pipes, knives, AK-47s, slingshots and batons cracked down on demonstrators near the Yakjin garment factory in Por Sen Chey district, making a number of arrests, including monks and union leaders, according to rights groups Licadho and the Community Legal Education Center.
“We withdraw from the negotiation front, because they crack down and arrest [people],” CNRP lawmaker-elect Yim Sovann told the Post. “We condemn the act of violence against the monks, against the workers who are demanding the minimum wage of $160.”
Speaking to demonstrators at the CNRP rally in Freedom Park last night, party president Sam Rainsy said his party would “not talk with such barbarians”.
“[We] do not talk with [persons] who treat others like this.” Sovann said that by using force on strikers, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party had violated an agreement to avoid violence and instead focus on electoral reform struck by the two parties on September 16, a day after police shot dead civilian Mao Sok Chan, 29, following an opposition protest.
“The CNRP appeals to the authorities to release the monks and workers and stop using [government forces] to suppress them.
“We will consider the possibility of a negotiation plan … when the authorities under the leadership of the CPP stop using violence.”
Two weeks ago, negotiations to end the deadlock over July 28’s election seemed unlikely so soon into the New Year – then garment workers began walking off the job in droves.
Their strike – a response to the government agreeing on December 24 to increase the monthly minimum wage for apparel work to $95 rather than the figure of $160 demanded by workers – was likely a catalyst for the two parties deciding to meet today, commentators said yesterday.
Ou Ritthy, a prominent political blogger, said the strikes had been a “matter of luck for the CNRP” and had helped speed up talks of negotiation.
“The CPP needs the CNRP to calm down the protesters,” he said. “It is important for both parties to meet.” The garment workers “are stronger than farmers and other supporters of the CPP” and the government needed to compromise to help end the strikes, he added.
Political analyst Kem Ley said the timing of the strikes had definitely worked to the CNRP’s advantage and had the government worried, especially as they were growing in size and set to involve teachers next week.
“The CNRP is definitely getting benefits from these strikes,” he said. When talks do happen, Ley said, “the CPP will request the CNRP to stop the strike and the CNRP will ask to increase the wages”.
Rainsy has a long history of involvement in the trade union movement, having helped found the Free Trade Union in the 1990s.
But Sovann yesterday dismissed suggestions the party had deliberately forged a close relationship with garment workers over the past week to strengthen its numbers on the streets as its ongoing mass demonstrations calling for a re-election have continued.
“We are MPs-elect. We have the responsibility to defend the interests of any people – farmers, civil servants and other victims,” Sovann said. “Do not link [our] demonstrations to the workers. It has just occurred at the same time.”
Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, disagreed, saying that the CNRP was trying to force Prime Minister Hun Sen to stand down by using garment workers as “human shields”.
“Factory workers are looking at their own interests here and this [strike] has nothing to do with politics.”
Siphan would not be drawn out on whether meetings between the two parties – a talking point all week – had been scheduled because of the amount of garment workers striking, saying only that the CPP had “opened the door” to the CNRP.
The opposition, he added, had made the wrong decision to withdraw from talks.
“We feel sorry to CNRP supporters that wish [elected lawmakers] to sit in the National Assembly and protect their interests,” he said. “The CNRP is making the wrong decision. They elect them to represent, not to start a rebellion.”
Interior Minister Sar Kheng said he regretted the CNRP’s decision to cancel talks, saying that the country had seen many violent demonstrators before and protesters themselves were often the perpetrators.
“But I still hope we will be able to meet,” he said, adding that “other issues” were behind the CNRP’s decision, without elaborating.
Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, one of six union groups at the forefront of the strike, said yesterday that the government had shown more willingness to negotiate because it was worried about the “power of the participants”.
“The strike is most concerning for the government and making it change its approach to negotiations, because, right now, no one can stop the people.”
That included the CNRP, Sovann said, which could only stand up for people’s rights and seek to negotiate an end to the political deadlock.
“We cannot stop [the workers] if their demands are not met,” he said. “Now they cannot survive. This is a problem of their own.
“[The CPP] want negotiations, but they still crack down. If they really want to negotiate, they should not use violence.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY MOM KUNTHEAR