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Canadia park, a ghost town

Shops on Phnom Penh’s Veng Sreng Boulevard remain closed in fear of more violent clashes
Shops on Phnom Penh’s Veng Sreng Boulevard remain closed in fear of more violent clashes. Hong Menea

Canadia park, a ghost town

On most Sundays, the wide boulevard separating two rows of some 40 mustard-coloured factories in the Canadia Industrial Park is teeming with people.

Garment workers who live on the premises stroll or bicycle along the road, stopping to eat at the same restaurants, patronizing the same stores. For businesses lucky enough to be in Canadia’s microcosm of an economy, the 13,000 workers in the park have translated into a steady stream of revenue. But all that changed on Friday, when garment workers—many of whom held jobs at one of Canadia’s factories—clashed with military police and riots cops outside the park on Veng Sreng road.

The bloody altercation was part of an ongoing labour strike that started almost two weeks ago, when workers walked off the job after the government refused to raise minimum wages to $160.

The demonstration took a fatal turn after authorities arrested protesters and rights activists on Thursday. That night, clashes broke out between angry protesters and violent police. By Friday morning, the fighting intensified, with police opening fire at demonstrators who were armed with rocks and homemade weapons.

By the afternoon, police had killed four people and injured more than 20, including bystanders. Soldiers moved in shortly after, sending many packing.

By Sunday, the once-busy streets of Canadia were silent.

The majority of workers had fled the violence over the weekend, leaving behind small groups brave enough to stick it out and try to collect their paychecks.

Young security guards sat in posts outside shuttered factories. Virtually all of the shops were closed. Food markets were operating at low capacity, and piddling sales were being made at the few businesses that were open. Standing under a factory with smashed windows and looking around at the abandoned boulevard, 23-year-old Srey No, who was there waiting to be paid, said the park felt like “a town without people”.

Chhuoen Ra, a 24-year-old security guard at a factory that makes purses and handbags, had a different way of describing the abrupt change in mood. “The place always has many workers walking around and is full of workers. But now there are only few,” Ra said.

“It is like a war zone, where people are trying to escape.”

Min Chandara, the chief of administration at the Canadia, said the mass exodus started more than a week ago, when workers joined the nationwide strike demanding increased salaries.

As the violence began to heat up early Friday, Canadia virtually emptied out. Since then, he said, it has stayed that way.

According to Chandara, there are about 600 permanent businesses and 350 mobile stores located inside the park and on the street in its vicinity. Many remain boarded and locked up. “Business has completely stopped,” Chandara said.

“Our staff and also some workers who still stay in the park cannot even find a place to buy food to eat.” He is hopeful that the workers will start to come back soon, perhaps as early as this week, because the 10th is when monthly payments arrive and are collected.

One man, who asked not to be identified for fear that his income would suffer as a result, was one of the first among store owners to return and test the waters: “I am worried, but I need to open my business,” the man said, standing next to his wife and three children.

On weekends, he can make around $500 selling mops, chairs, plates, bowls and other home supplies. Since he reopened Sunday morning, however, he hasn’t made a single sale.

“I don’t know what to do. I hope things will be solved soon,” he added.

Oun Vanna, 55, sells pork at the market right outside the park’s entrance. It’s been quiet and her profits have also taken a huge hit.

“People are going outside now. They seem to be scared, as they see the soldiers along the road,” she said.

On Veng Sreng, the rocks and burning heaps of junk have been cleared away, but the road doesn’t bear the markings of normalcy. Soldiers lounge in trucks parked right on the street, or sit on the sidewalk, guns close to their sides. A group of them stood outside a nearby clinic that had been ransacked during Friday’s protest. Angry strikers said the doctor would not treat a wounded worker, so they trashed the place, hauling the beds out into the street and breaking and looting anything they could find inside.

Days later, broken bits of window remain scattered around the sidewalk. Across the street, pharmacist Pich Sokun watched from his counter. One of the handful to open up shop, Sokun said he had only sold $5 of medicine Sunday, as opposed to his usual earnings of $80 or even $100.

Stores to the right and left of him were still closed, either because no workers were there to buy anything, or out of fear. Asked why he didn’t do the same, Sokun said, “I’m not afraid,” explaining that he was “neutral” in the dispute.

At least one business stopped before it got started.

On the same strip as Sokun a few stores away, Chay Ry, 41, sells phone credit and changes money. He had done well enough recently to purchase the storefront property next to his.

However, the start of the new enterprise turned out to be problematic.

“I expanded it on Friday,” he said. Alluding to the violence, he added, “but I never got the chance to open.”

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