The sight of traffic moving easily and people milling about along Veng Sreng Boulevard in the capital’s Meanchey district yesterday was a far cry from two days earlier, when the street was occupied by makeshift roadblocks, bonfires and military personnel carrying automatic rifles.
While visible evidence of the deadly crackdown on a garment worker strike near the Canadia Industrial Park on Friday – which claimed the lives of at least four – and attacks on pro-opposition demonstrators in Freedom Park on Saturday had largely disappeared, the unprecedented violence remained all too real for those affected.
“I was very scared when authorities cracked down and opened fire,” So Sambath, 20, said as he lay in the intensive care unit of Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital with a bullet wound in his stomach. “Maybe I won’t return to work if protests continue, because I’m afraid they will open fire again.”
Demonstrations at the industrial park over the minimum wage began peacefully on Thursday, witnesses said, though Post reporters on site said that hours before police arrived, the road had been partially blocked and more than a half-dozen bonfires lit.
After an initial encounter that saw law enforcement officials beat demonstrators and go as far as chase some into their homes, police withdrew, only to return in greater numbers, and with deadly force, hours later.
Rights group Licadho yesterday confirmed that, according to their tally, at least four men were killed, three of whom were garment workers.
Pheng Kosal, a 24-year-old garment worker, Yean Rithy, a 24-year-old garment worker and father of one, and Kim Polin, 29, all died from gunshot wounds at the Khmer-Soviet hospital on Friday, according to Licadho. Korng Ravy, a 25-year-old factory worker and father of two, died at Calmette Hospital after being shot on Friday.
In addition, Licadho’s data show that at least 27 people were injured at the Veng Sreng crackdown.
“The human rights situation and democracy in Cambodia is backpedalling,” said Chan Soveth, a senior investigator for rights group Adhoc. “They do not implement [orders] democratically.… The military forces are committed to settling problems using force.”
In a statement dated Saturday, Anannya Bhattacharjee, international coordinator for the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, encouraged Cambodian authorities to drop charges against 23 people arrested at the demonstration on Friday and one the day before at Yakjin (Cambodia) Inc in Por Sen Chey district.
“We, the international community, call upon the Cambodian authorities to release unconditionally those who are being arrested and detained for exercising their rights to participate in peaceful assembly,” Bhattacharjee’s statement says. “We call upon brands and retailers such as H&M, Adidas, Gap, and Walmart to act swiftly to support the implementation of USD 160 minimum wage in Cambodia.”
UN human rights envoy Surya Subedi similarly condemned the shooting. In a statement dated Friday, Subedi said he was “deeply concerned at the latest clashes in Cambodia and deplore the loss of life. I call on the authorities to exercise restraint towards protesters. Any use of force by officials must be subject to the principles of legality, necessity and proportionality.”
He also called for an investigation into the use of excessive force.
But Council of Ministers Secretary of State Keo Remy defended military and police tactics used against demonstrators over the past week. Blaming the Cambodia National Rescue Party for inciting unrest – CNRP officials brought food for people at demonstrations, he noted – Remy insisted that police did not crack down on demonstrators, but responded to violent gatherings.
“It was a clash, not a crackdown,” Remy said. “It was partly necessary to prevent violence from the anarchic people; if we allow them [to act like that], how will the situation be?”
Upon hearing Remy’s allegation that CNRP officials instigated clashes between police and garment strikers, party spokesman Yim Sovann denied the opposition party was responsible for the violence. Crackdowns are part of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party’s MO, Sovann said.
“The CPP uses violence, but they never recognise it,” Sovann said yesterday. “[Authorities] are the CPP’s men, so they are responsible for everything that happened.”
Court officials are now also denying legal rights to 13 people who were arrested during the clash on Friday, said Moeun Tola, head of the labour program at the Community Legal Education Center.
A Phnom Penh judge on Saturday refused to allow the defendants – all of whom are held in pretrial detention – to meet with members of their families, a right in Cambodia’s criminal law system, Tola said.
“All these families were calling me, asking ‘where is my husband? Where is my son? I don’t know where they’ve been brought to,’” Tola said yesterday.
On Veng Sreng Boulevard yesterday afternoon, the only remnants of Friday’s events was a group of armed military police standing at the Ekreach Clinic, which demonstrators gutted on Thursday night and on Friday morning. However, tension remained thick there.
“I feel so angry,” food vendor Sorm Sarun, 48, said at his stall across the street from where military police stood yesterday. After running for his life from his stall to take cover after authorities began unloading with automatic rifles on Friday, he feels unsafe there.
“We are afraid and concerned about soldiers opening fire,” Sarun said.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY DANIEL PYE AND DANIEL QUINLAN