A crowd of people gathered to commemorate the second anniversary of a deadly crackdown on garment worker protests only to be harshly dispersed by an overwhelming number of authorities yesterday morning.
Around 300 union members, garment workers, human rights activists and others gathered on Veng Sreng Boulevard to demand justice for the victims of a government crackdown on wage protests there on January 3, 2014, that left at least four garment workers dead (another is missing and presumed dead).
Although their stated intent was to peacefully honour the dead, the protesters were met by around 500 authorities in the area. Soon, approximately 100 riot police and security personnel began blocking their way and muscling them backwards.
While no injuries or arrests were reported, the police used heavy-handed tactics, such as using their shields to aggressively push people back, while at least one woman was grabbed and dragged away against her will.
During one heated moment, Nam Chan Than, a monk in a group of six, told security guards as he was being forced to walk backwards that “you have no right to push me”.
“If you do not walk, I will push,” retorted the security guards’ leader, going on to accuse the monks of being “fake” and “destroying the Buddhist religion”.
The gathering was banned by an edict from City Hall issued on Saturday evening “in order to preserve security, safety and public order, and especially to avoid traffic jams in that location”.
The group was effectively blocked from holding a ceremony at Canadia Industrial Park, where police fired AK-47s into a crowd of rioters two years ago.
“We gathered to mark the anniversary of the shooting in a religious, Buddhist manner, but we have been prevented and dispersed,” explained Am Sam Ath, senior investigator for rights group Licadho.
Sam Ath went on to liken the impunity for the violence on Veng Sreng to that seen in the case of a commuter who was shot to death by police on Kbal Thnal bridge amid post-election unrest.
City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche defended the decision to ban yesterday’s event, however.
“We do not know if [the police action yesterday] was excessive or not, but it was done to prevent any ceremony that involves public order and uses religious pictures to incite and somehow cause instability in society.”
The 2014 killings were the culmination of protests from garment workers unhappy with the then-recently-announced $100 minimum wage for the sector.
“It was an injustice that they prevented us from holding the ceremony because we weren’t the ones who cracked down and shot and attacked people,” said So Nang, 30, one of the garment workers seriously injured in the shootings who marched yesterday.
“They do not want us to remember this, and do not want others to know about it,” he said.
The group yesterday demanded in particular that the officers who shot garment workers on January 3, 2014, be punished. An investigation into the deaths was announced soon after, but, two years later, no arrests have been made.
“We think the authorities are not willing to find those perpetrators who killed my husband,” said Chhiv Panith, a garment worker whose husband Sam Ravy was among the January 3 casualties.
“If they were willing, they would find them.”
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said a Ministry of Interior investigative committee had referred their investigation to an unspecified court long ago.
“[The critics] can say anything they like,” he said. “The court takes responsibility for [the investigation.]”