Three days after a 24-year-old mother was shot in the back while fleeing a violent
police crackdown on a garment worker protest, an air of intimidation still surrounds
the small village outside the Suntex factory group compound.
On October 19, military police remained on patrol with riot shields, electric batons
and automatic weapons, angrily dispersing any gatherings of more than three people
that formed. Local motodop drivers had been forced from their usual locations, and
groups of young garment workers, laid off after the protests, scattered when the
armed patrols approach. Phnom Police Chief Touch Naruth confirmed that he has 40
intervention police and a fire engine stationed at the site over concerns that the
1,020 fired employees would torch the building.
The usually quiet industrial area on Veng Streng Road, just south of Phnom Penh,
retains the pall of a battle zone-and residents, activists and international labor
officials are demanding to know why bullets and batons were required to quell what
began as a dispute over work contracts.
Meanwhile, the factory's owner, as well as garment industry and government officials,
are scrambling to provide explanations for what Neil Kearney, general secretary of
the International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers' Federation, has called "appalling
On the evening of October 16, a call from the management of Suntex's Bright Sky factory
brought a hundreds-strong swarm of military police who descended on the compound
to pacify protesting Bright Star workers. At the time, the managers claimed the group
was becoming unruly and damaging factory property.
"At about 6 pm I called [Free Trade Union President] Chea Mony and said the
workers aren't working. I asked him to come and take a look," said Bright Sky
manager Albert Tan, an ethnic Chinese Singaporean citizen who has been in Cambodia
for ten years. "Then things got worse, so I called GMAC [Garment Manufacturer's
Association of Cambodia], the Ministry of Labor and the police."
Tan told the Post that after several hours the protesters who did not depart peacefully
were pushed out of the compound by the police using riot shields.
According to Tan, protesters then hurled bottles and rocks into the compound. The
projectiles prompted the police, with a single whistle call to warn the crowd, to
burst from the compound firing AK47s into the air above the mob. But, protesters,
union officials, residents and food vendors outside the factory told the Post that
the police also shot directly into the crowd. And Chi Samon, president of the Free
Trade Union at Bright Sky, provided a completely different account.
"Military police and police started shocking and shooting workers from 8:30
pm to 11 pm. Before this about 20 to 30 workers were locked inside the factory while
about 3,000 were outside the factory gates. The workers outside knocked on the door
for the factory because they were afraid the police were beating them," said
Samon, who also led a March protest at Bright Sky that also resulted in violence
and police intervention. "Three people were shot-one in the stomach, one in
the leg and the other in the foot. And about 40 were shocked by the electric batons.
To tell the truth, the workers did not throw rocks at the police because there are
no rocks there. The workers were striking peacefully."
But Ken Loo, secretary general of GMAC, called the use of force "appropriate
and necessary," and suggested that garment workers can be threatening and rebellious.
"Protesters aren't as peaceful or coy as the unions might like you to believe.
It's easy for workers to say they are afraid of police, but are they really as innocent
as they seem?" Loo said. "These workers can be pretty menacing at times.
You would think that they, as young girls are meek and mild, but the reality is that
in the factory it is not only young girls. There are plenty of male counterparts
and Cambodian crowds are easily incited."
Speaking from her bed in Preah Kossamak Hospital surrounded by her family and three-year-old
daughter, garment factory worker Muth Savy explained that she was working a night-shift
in the Rainbow Factory, next door to Bright Sky.
"When I came out of the factory, I saw police and Flying Tiger police shooting
over the workers and hitting them with electric batons," said Savy. "I
was very frightened, so I hid at the factory gate. But then the police started shooting
lots of bullets, and I got really frightened, so I decided to run home. When I was
running I felt something in my back. I ran for another 20 meters and then fell to
the ground. I got up again, but now I felt a lot of pain, so I ran into a house next
to the compound."
Savy had to ask the owner of the house what had happened to her.
"When I looked at her back, I saw there was a hole in it," said the owner
who refused to give her name, as did all other villagers and workers spoken to by
"Many factory workers were brought unconscious to my house after they had been
shocked with electric batons."
A food seller outside the compound gate, who would not speak to the Post until a
military police patrol had passed, said protesters outside the compound saw police
inside the compound beating female workers until they bled.
Bright Sky's Tan said however that it was the protesters throwing rocks and bottles
into the compound that caused the police to leave the compound and start shooting
into the air. Tan presented a company video of the protest as evidence. Although
mainly dim and unclear, it showed objects hurtling over the wall into the compound,
landing on police and security guards.
According to Tan, Rainbow Factory has agreed to pay all medical expenses, has already
compensated Savy's family $500 and will will pay her full salary for the next three
Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, said October 19 that authorities
do not believe Savy was shot by the police, but by another group instead. He conceded
that nothing could be assumed until the police inquiry concluded.
"We are now still continuing the investigation over the shooting," said
Naruth. "We'll investigate where the bullet came from, what kind of bullet it
was and who the gun belonged to."
The Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee (CHRAC) has blasted the violent police
tactics used to calm what the group has called "a peaceful strike made by garment
factory workers while they were asserting their rights for better working conditions."
"CHRAC maintains that the action committed by the armed forces seriously violates
human rights as well as national and international laws, especially curtailing the
freedom of expression of the workers," reads a statement released by the CHRAC.
But such strong talk is little solace to Savy's father, Trov Lun.
"We are from the provinces and plant rice to make a living. In my district police
come to help and arrest criminals," he said. "But here in Phnom Penh police
are very cruel. Why would they shoot innocent people like my daughter? How can we
learn to be better people with such a bad example as that?"