One year ago today, gunfire from heavily armed security forces killed at least five people on the capital’s Veng Sreng Boulevard. The deadly violence – and a crackdown on opposition supporters in Freedom Park the following day – also landed devastating blows to a united protest movement fast gaining momentum
In the final days of 2013, a protest movement was sweeping up thousands of young people across the country.
After a year of industrial unrest typified by largely unconnected factory strikes, garment workers and non-government-aligned unions suddenly found themselves unified and in full voice over their demands for a $160 monthly minimum wage.
When the government offered workers just $95 in late December 2013, workers poured onto the streets. Factories were ordered shut. In just a few days, workers had brought a multibillion-dollar industry to a standstill.
At the same time, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party – in the middle of a parliamentary boycott – was marching down major roads and using Freedom Park as a peaceful stronghold from which to voice their demands for a new election.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy told garment workers to hold out for $160 and boasted of his party’s own movement being a “a giant wave that cannot be stopped”. The two protest paths soon converged.
“The CNRP was riding on momentum . . . it was a perfect storm,” recalled Ou Virak, chairman of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.
But in the first few days of 2014 everything changed. Government security forces carried out crackdowns on strikers and protesters. On this day last year, security forces stormed along Veng Sreng Boulevard, a garment factory hub on the capital’s outskirts, firing indiscriminately at workers and bystanders.
At least five people were killed. Dozens more were wounded. One 16-year-old, last seen with a gunshot wound, is still missing.
The following day in Freedom Park, security forces charged into a crowd of opposition supporters, beating and arresting people and dismantling a stage and tents.
Any momentum the unions and the CNRP had gathered on the streets had been crushed in 48 hours.
“The government got what they wanted,” Virak said. “They stopped the protests and it pressured the opposition to [eventually] go back to the table.”
In the year since, the labour movement has taken more blows. An immediate ban on public gatherings – since lifted – emptied the streets.
Union leaders have been charged and unions denied registration.
Business associations have publicly challenged the “fundamental” right to strike. And 23 people – unionists and rights workers – have spent months in prison over widely criticised charges relating to the January 2 and 3 protests.
While other protests increased as 2014 progressed – Khmer Krom and Boeung Kak activists have regularly demonstrated – garment workers remained relatively quiet.
According to Ministry of Labour figures released this week, strikes plunged from 418 in 2013 to 276 last year.
One argument as to why workers have stayed off the streets has been the minimum wage increase in November. Workers were granted $128, cementing a doubling of the floor wage over the course of a few years.
“But our problems have not been solved – the only thing that has changed is the minimum wage,” said Ath Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union (CCAWDU).
So why aren’t more workers striking?
Thorn said the movement has splintered. Workers have returned to striking against conditions in only their own factory, thinking less about the bigger picture.
Another factor is fear.
“The workers are still scared – but they have not abandoned their activism if it directly affects them,” Thorn said.
Moeun Tola, head of the labour program at the Cambodian Legal Education Centre, said that crackdowns and intimidation had deterred many.
“We still remember when the [unions] organised a boycott to release the 23, the soldiers were deployed at the factories,” he said.
“The deployment of the soldiers definitely intimidated workers not to go on strike.”
This rings true for Lon San, 21, one of the 23 workers and unionists arrested on January 2 and 3 and imprisoned for months.
“I’m still afraid there will be more crackdowns. What happened to us was so cruel – I’ve not seen anything like it before. I will not protest anymore.”
Yang Sophorn, president of the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions (CATU), said the minimum wage increase in November had appeased many workers for the time being.
But the memories of last year still play a significant part in keeping the streets quiet.
“[They] learned a bad lesson when workers were killed and injured early last year,” she said.
Dave Welsh, country director for labour-rights group Solidarity Center, said conditions remained for renewed strikes.
“[T]here has been complete impunity, zero arrests, no investigation, absolutely no compensation [for victims and their families] and 23 people with convictions,” he said.
The government, he added, had initially tried to shut unions out of negotiations altogether and still ended up offering less than a “living wage”.
“We’re still in a situation where workers, unless they do large amounts of overtime, cannot survive on the minimum wage.”
Amid that, Welsh continued, “you still have lawsuits against literally every independent union leader in the country”.
“I don’t think workers are overjoyed,” he said. “Expectations for more increases are legitimately very high. We’ll see what the consequences of that are.”
Cause and effect
A year after his son Khim Saphath, then 16, was last seen nursing a bloody chest wound on Veng Sreng Boulevard, his father Khim Soeun, 41, continues to wait in hope that he will one day return to the family home.
“One year has passed already, and I have not heard any information about where my son is,” he said. “I will not stop searching for him, though sometimes I fear he is no longer alive.”
Saphath’s sister, 21, continues to work at a factory on Veng Sreng Boulevard, where heavily armed security forces opened fire on her brother.
“I often call her to make sure she is OK and urge her not to join any protest,” Soeun said.
For many others, life at Veng Sreng has returned to normal. The hum of workers, food vendors and passing traffic is just the same as it was before the shootings.
One difference along Veng Sreng, however, is there is now a wariness of future protests becoming politicised.
“I would protest again for better conditions,” said So Nang, a garment worker and tuk-tuk driver who was shot on Veng Sreng last year.
“But I would join with the CNRP only if they were protesting for the benefit of the nation – not just for their own benefit.”
Vorn Pov, president of the Independent and Democracy of Informal Economic Association (IDEA), spent almost five months in prison after being arrested during the crackdowns a year ago.
He and 22 other unionists and activists were convicted on charges widely derided as politically motivated.
During his ordeal, Pov said, CNRP deputy leader Kem Sokha often visited the activists in prison and held a party for them upon their release.
Months on, though, Pov no longer has contact with the opposition.
“I’ve not had any support from the CNRP since, and we don’t share a relationship,” he said. “I can’t say whether I will even continue to support the CNRP until I see whether they work for their own benefit or society,” he said.
Twelve months after the shootings, much of the strong support for the opposition that came from NGOs and unions has softened, CCHR’s Virak said.
“Those people who thought the rise was imminent – these people are starting to see things differently now,” he said.
By entering the National Assembly and ending opposition protests on July 22, the CNRP has essentially “got off the tiger” and now faces the challenge of effecting change from within the familiar CPP-controlled system.
Criticism that the opposition has sidled up to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party in doing so, Virak said, is “the tiger now attacking them”.
But opposition lawmaker Mu Sochua – who was arrested in July over a demonstration in Freedom Park – believes the protest movement of the past 18 months has made activism legitimate in Cambodia.
As far as Sochua is concerned, the CNRP’s relationship with the union movement remains the same as it was 12 months ago.
“What we have in common is our fight for freedom.”
As the opposition moves towards a 2018 election, garment workers will again be homed in on, she said.
“But it’s not just about garment workers,” Sochua said, adding that many of those in the sector just happen to be young people – another key demographic.
Sophorn believes calm in the union sector does not represent a decline in the non-government-aligned union movement, or a severing of ties with the CNRP.
Many workers and unions will still support the CNRP – on the street and at the ballot boxes – due to a belief that the party has their interests in mind, she said.
FTU president Chea Mony, agreed.
“Most workers still like the CNRP. They have not changed,” he said. “But we are still an independent union, so political issues are separate from us.”
Looking back, and ahead
The CNRP, families and survivors will gather for memorials this weekend.
As the anniversary approached, the Cambodian Labour Confederation on Wednesday urged the government to take action over the shootings and drop charges against union leaders.
While the government has said a number of times that an investigation into the shooting has been completed, few details have been made public.
But Kheng Tito, spokesman for the National Military police, said this week that freedom of assembly is alive and well in the Kingdom.
Many garment workers, he added, have engaged in peaceful protests in the past year without incident.
“It hasn’t been violent – and that is what is needed in the industry,” he said. “We only crack down on [people] when their strike is violent and causes serious problems in the area.”
But in the wake of opposition supporters and activists being put on trial late in the year and the whirlwind trial and imprisonment of 11 land activists in November, concerns remain.
While CCHR’s Virak expects stability for now, his eyes will be among the many fixed on the government next time such a “perfect storm” brews.
“People have never been truly free to demonstrate [in Cambodia]. And the government is always willing to do it again,” he said, referring to violent crackdowns.