A young woman is fighting for her life after she was shot in the chest during a protest of about 6,000 workers yesterday at a factory that supplies sportswear giant PUMA by an assailant that witnesses have said was dressed in police uniform.
The victim, Buot Chinda, was one of three people shot in front of police during the rowdy protest at the Kaoway Sports Ltd factory, in Svay Rieng province, in an incident PUMA has said it is taking “very seriously”.
She remains in a critical condition from the bullet wound that narrowly missed her heart and punctured her lung and has been rushed to Phnom Penh’s Calmette Hospital.
The shootings began when two truckloads of police confronted protesters after they began hurling rocks through the factory’s windows, ignited tyres and invaded the premises, demanding increased benefits.
From her hospital bed, Bout Chinda said yesterday she could not identify the person who shot her as she walked through the crowd, because she was in severe pain and shock.
“When I was walking to the toilet, I was shot. When the bullet entered my body, I didn’t think I would survive,” she said.
Her sister, Som Sina, who also works at the factory, said a man wearing a short-sleeved police uniform stepped out of a car and began firing randomly into the crowd, hitting her sister and two others.
“It didn’t make a sound because he used a silencer. Some of the workers recognised him as a Bavet town police officer,” she said.
A Kaoway Sports Ltd employee, who works for the management but wished to remain anonymous, also identified the perpetrator as a man dressed in a police uniform, adding that he was flanked by a police officer and a bodyguard.
“After he shot the workers, some of the protesters tried to follow and capture him, but he got into a black Camry that was waiting for him and drove away,” the employee said.
This account, which was confirmed by several other protesters who witnessed the scene, was disputed by Bavet police chief Keo Kong, who denied a police officer was responsible, adding that six officers had also been injured.
“We just know that one man wearing a white shirt fired on the workers. Police and workers tried to arrest him, but failed because he ran into the forest,” he said.
Keo Kong said the 6,000 protesters at the Taiwanese-owned Kaoway Sports factory, in Bavet town’s Manhattan Special Economic Zone, included employees from other factories in the zone including Kingmaker, Sheico Group and Ankor Supreme.
He identified the other workers who had been shot as Keo Neth, 18, Nuth Sakhorn, 23, both of whom were in a stable condition.
National Police spokesman Kirt Chantharith said a special team had been sent to investigate and arrest the gunman.
“The gunman is not in our police forces, and we did not hurt anyone,” he said.
Kaoway Sports Ltd could not be reached by the Post for comment yesterday.
But PUMA was quick to respond to the incident, releasing a press statement before telling the Post it already had people on the ground investigating the situation.
“PUMA takes this incident very seriously and will take all measures to ensure that the safety of its supplier factory workers is paramount,” the statement read.
“According to the information PUMA has been able to obtain, factory management has evacuated all personnel from the compound to ensure the employees’ safety and workers have been sent home.”
The shooting, the latest in a series of incidents over the past two months in which protesters have been fired upon, has drawn outrage from civil-society groups and the opposition Sam Rainsy Party.
SRP lawmaker Mu Sochua, who visited Buot Chinda in hospital yesterday, said it was extraordinary such action had been taken against workers seeking about $US25 in monthly benefits on top of the $61 minimum wage they receive.
“Does PUMA want its name to be tainted by the blood of workers in Cambodia? These are young women who want nothing more than $10 for transportation and an extra 50 cents for their food,” she said.
Jill Tucker, chief technical adviser at the International Labour Organisation’s Better Factories Cambodia, said that although details of the incident remained sketchy, it was worrying for the country’s international reputation as a supplier of footwear and clothing.
“It doesn’t look good for Cambodia when this type of violence is concerned,” she said.
Ek Tha, a spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said no one should draw conclusions about what had happened until a full investigation was completed.
Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, of which Kaoway Sports Ltd is a member, downplayed the severity of the situation.
“We all know that one worker was injured and it was originally rumoured that worker was killed, but that’s not the case,” he said.
He suggested protesters were just looking for “an excuse to make trouble” rather than seeking genuine benefits due to external, non-union agitation and claimed the factory had accepted the workers’ requests before they amended their demands and began vandalising the factory.
The protest reportedly erupted into violence when Kaoway Sports Ltd agreed to only two or three demands made by workers, including monthly allowances of $10 for transport, $10 as an attendance bonus and US 50 cents a day for lunch.
Svay Rieng provincial governor Chieng Am said that after the shootings, the company had agreed to all the workers’ demands and vowed to give 500,000 riel compensation to each victim.
Meanwhile, Buot Chinda’s doctor, Svay Rieng provincial hospital deputy Kouch Sipha, is just hoping his patient will stay alive.
“We are trying our best to save her life,” he said before Buot Chinda was sent to Phnom Penh because her condition had deteriorated.