A Chinese factory manager sparked a near-riot in Phnom Penh yesterday morning after publicly destroying two photos of the late King Father in front of hundreds of workers.
More than a thousand employees of the Top World garment factory launched an immediate strike, and threatened to march from the Meanchey district factory to the Royal Palace before being diverted by police who brought the manager, Wang Xiao Jiao, to the Phnom Penh Municipal Police headquarters for questioning.
She remained in police custody as of last night, said Choun Sovann, Phnom Penh Municipal police chief, and will be sent to court today on allegations of “causing turmoil in society”.
“We have to wait and see the result of the questioning from the police,” said Kouch Chamroeun, Meanchey district governor, saying that it was too early to discuss the charges Xiao Jiao might face.
Reaction from the Chinese Embassy was swift and unsympathetic.
“I think the behaviour the lady took is very stupid, and we are also very angry about this,” said embassy spokesman Yang Tianyue, adding that he would not comment on charges or the likelihood of deportation.
According to accounts from workers, monitors, factory officials and authorities, Xiao Jiao, an operations manager at Top World Garment, grabbed the photos from a worker who had been showing them to friends outside the factory gates. Annoyed by the distraction the photos had been causing, Xiao Jiao then tore them up and threw them aside, enraging those who had witnessed the scene.
“I was very shocked when I saw that woman use scissors to cut my king’s photos,” said Seng Seangly, 39, whose two images of the King Father were destroyed. “I shouted very loudly and cried until I lost consciousness.”
The response was instantaneous. Employees stopped working and gathered in front of the factory to demand an apology to the late king, said Keo Chenda, a worker representative.
“We could not allow that woman to do that to our beloved king. She has to say an apology to the king at the Royal Palace and shave her head to show respect, but the police officials would not send her to the palace,” he said.
Instead, district police and workers helped create a hastily erected shrine outside the factory at which Xiao Jiao prostrated and begged forgiveness, pleading ignorance, in front of a protective police cordon and reporters before being brought to the police station.
In trucks and on foot, the workers followed. Late last night, they remained outside the police station.
“She has to be punished,” Teng Somaly, a worker at Top World, said. “We cannot work with this bad person who looks down on our king.”
No charges have yet been levied against Xiao Jiao, but she was immediately dismissed by the factory.
“We so regret what happened to our company, and the director decided to fire her,” Koch Ousphea, an administration manager at Top World, said.
The company’s general director had issued a public apology to the workers, he added, and would continue to pay them even as they maintained their demonstration outside the police station.
Police believe a charge of incitement or causing public disorder charge is plausible, but legal experts were split over whether Xiao Jiao could face charges related to the act itself.
Cambodia lacks the strict lese-majeste laws in place in other countries, and nothing in the penal code touches on the potential crime, but a constitutional clause on the king’s inviolability could be interpreted loosely enough to warrant charges, some suggested.
“In the constitution, whatever concerns the person of the king is untouchable,” Son Soubert, an adviser to King Norodom Sihamoni, suggested.
Pausing to reflect, Soubert said he was floored to hear of the case. “This has never happened in Cambodia before.”
Political analyst Lao Mong Hay, who, like Soubert, is a former lawyer, said he believed the law extended only to “acts against the person of the king, not the image”.
Regardless, he said, the implications of such an act were profound.
“It’s an affront to the Cambodian culture in this period of bereavement,” he said, adding that the quick reaction of police probably staved off a more extreme reaction such as the one that led to the 2003 anti-Thai riots, in which one person died, businesses were looted and Thai nationals had to be evacuated.
“[Their] action defused the tension and allayed the anger of people directly concerned.”
Others suggested it was too early to assume the incident had been put to bed. Pictures of the destroyed photos, and of Xiao Jiao in police custody, have sped across social networking sites.
“I’m not quite sure yet how the other people will react, because it is very, very sensitive,” Moeun Tola, head of the labour program at the Cambodian Legal Education Centre, said, noting that immense damage control was needed to downplay the Thai Channel 3 reporter’s gaffe, which all parties agreed was unintentional.
“But this incident was an [intentional] one,” he said. “It could provoke nationalism and violence among the nationalists. I am really concerned about that.”