Vorn Pov says he was only trying to ease tensions between protesting garment workers and security personnel outside the Yakjin garment factory on Phnom Penh’s Veng Sreng Boulevard on January 2, 2014.
Nonetheless, soldiers from the elite 911 paratrooper unit attacked him, brutally beating him and dragging him away. Photographs of Pov, blood pouring from his mouth, have become synonymous with the violent crackdown on garment worker protests that year.
The next day – four years ago yesterday – authorities launched one of the most violent crackdowns in recent Cambodian memory, with security officials firing live ammunition at protesters, killing four individuals. Another worker, last seen with bloody chest wounds, has been missing ever since and is presumed dead.
For the last three years, Pov has marked the tragic events of January 2014. Last year, he even held a memorial service at his association’s offices where workers put up pictures from the demonstrations and conducted a religious ceremony. The union leader himself displayed the bloodied clothes he wore on the day he was beaten.
But that was not the case yesterday.
“We did not organise any event this year as the political situation is not looking good, and the political climate is heated. It is preventing us from doing any gathering,” he said.
“In the current situation, all NGOs or organisations don’t want to do any gatherings at any public spaces as they have a lot of concerns about our security.”
Indeed, with the government having retroactively branded the protests part of an opposition-led insurrection against its rule, there are no plans this year to mark the events at Veng Sreng – arguably the biggest tragedy in the history of the country’s labour rights movement since the assassination of unionist Chea Vichea in 2004.
As the president of the informal worker association IDEA, Pov was among the tens of thousands who took to the streets in December of 2013 demanding a wage increase for the country’s garment sector.
The protests coincided with demonstrations against the contested 2013 elections organised by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, which expressed its solidarity with the striking workers in late December – just before security forces moved in on Veng Sreng.
The next day, with the garment protests quelled, officials set their sights on the CNRP’s long-running peaceful sit-in at Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park. Authorities stormed the park, violently dispersing demonstrators and tearing down structures that had been erected there.
Just months ago, the two events took on even greater meaning as the government began taking pains to link Veng Sreng to a purported “colour revolution” allegedly organised by the CNRP – the only legitimate competitor to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party. The party’s leader was ultimately arrested on widely decried charges of “treason”, and the party itself was summarily dissolved at the government’s behest over the alleged plot.
In the Supreme Court hearing on the CNRP’s dissolution, the government put forth little evidence to substantiate its claims of an uprising – but it did name Pov as an opposition collaborator in its conspiratorial narrative of the CNRP’s so-called “lotus revolution”.
Another victim of the violence on Veng Sreng was Theng Savoeun.
The president of the Coalition of Cambodian Farmer Community, Savoeun did not feature in the CNRP’s dissolution trial, but was instead named as attempting to start a “green revolution” in a leaked National Police document about colour revolutions.
Savoeun, too, had no plans to organise a Veng Sreng memorial, saying the linking of union leaders to the CNRP’s predicament had put them on the back foot. He added that, in the current situation, airing criticisms of the crackdown would only seem like an endorsement of the alleged revolution.
“We’ve not organised any gatherings because the government claims that we did the colour revolution movement. So we’re afraid the government will take action against us,’’ he said.
Ou Tepphalin, the recently elected president of Cambodian Food and Service Workers Federation, was also sitting this year out. She said the constant resurrecting of Veng Sreng by the premier, even as he tries to court the garment worker vote with a string of populist promises, had sent a strong message to unionists.
“The problem is we don’t want to see another crackdown or violence against people,” she said.
She claimed that despite there being no event to mark the occasion, workers were well aware of the events of January, 2014, and that any benefits they reap now are owed to the demonstrations at Veng Sreng. “Even if they don’t march or are not active today, they still remember,” she said.