GUNFIRE at Phnom Penh’s Canadia Industrial Park today killed at least four people, a military police official said, after armed forces firing weapons stormed the area – where garment workers and supporters set fires and gutted at least one building.
“We received news from the hospital claiming that four people were killed and another 26 strikers were injured,” the official said on condition of anonymity.
Naly Pilorge, director of rights group Licadho, which tallied the casualties, also said four had been killed, adding that 29 others were shot in the crackdown and 12 more treated for injuries that have not been confirmed as gunshot wounds.
Rights group Adhoc has said that five people were killed in the crackdown, while Phnom Penh deputy police commissioner Chuon Narin told the Post only three people died and two were seriously injured.
The demonstration at Canadia comes amid an ongoing national strike that began last week when the Ministry of Labour's Labour Advisory Committee set a new monthly minimum wage of $95 – $65 less than striking unions demanded. The ministry raised the minimum wage another $5 earlier this week, but many workers have remained on strike.
Bloodshed this morning and afternoon stemmed from a peaceful demonstration yesterday afternoon, which police broke up with an unprovoked attack, beating people with batons, witnesses said last night.
Demonstrators then started at least three tyre fires in the middle of roads, which they blocked to traffic using vehicles and debris.
After midnight, an estimated 500 police in riot gear moved in to remove hundreds of remaining protesters from outside the factory.
Road blocks and fires resumed this morning, with demonstrators also breaking windows and gutting Ekreach Clinic, throwing medical equipment onto a bonfire burning on Veng Sreng Boulevard.
At about 10am, authorities began firing live ammunition at demonstrators, who allegedly threw stones at the security forces, a statement released by Licadho says.
Demonstrators began scattering from Veng Sreng at about 1:30pm, when military police descended upon the area, armed with automatic weapons.
Rapid volleys of gunfire and some screams could be heard for about 15 minutes, as soldiers walked behind buildings on the street, which protesters had ran toward.
Factories at Canadia Industrial Park supply to H&M, Puma, Adidas and PVH – whose brands include Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein – said Moeun Tola, head of the labour programme at Community Legal Education Center.
Pilorge, from Licadho, said the violence was the worst seen in Cambodia since the shootings and grenade attacks on political demonstrations in 1998.
“[Past violence] was all political... this was originally triggered by workers,” Pilorge said. “In terms of labour, we’ve never seen this.”
Dave Welsh, from labour rights group Solidarity Center, condemned the use of live ammunition as outrageous.
“In that economic zone, things have been getting out of hand,” he said. “Whatever the case, this is complete disproportionate use of force, illegal and completely outrageous on behalf of the government.”
Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, said he had received information that four strikers had been shot dead and many more injured.
“Why are they cracking down on us when we are just demanding our salary?”
But National Military Police spokesman Brigadier General Kheng Tito defended the use of force.
“We’re just doing our jobs. We fear the security situation, so we have to crack down on them,” he said. “If we allow them to continue the strike, later on, it will become messy and more complicated to control.”
Tito added that nine police officials were injured by stones, some fired from slingshots, during clashes with workers in the area.
As of tonight, authorities have secured the situation at all locations where clashes erupted and 11 protesters arrested will be sent to court for formal charges, he added.
Among the bloodied was part-time garment worker Yean Sothear, 25, who said he received head injuries during the crackdown.
“The workers didn’t want violence. We just wanted to block the road . . . the police attacked us and shot us,” he said. “Most of the workers were injured. My friend went to the nearby hospital, but the police ordered them not to treat them – that’s why they were angry.”
San Sino, 28, whose brother, a garment worker, was shot dead, said staff at the Khmer-Soviet Friendship hospital had refused to release his brother’s body for a funeral service in Freedom Park.
“My brother was a factory worker. He went to demonstrate a few days ago,” he said. “I begged him not to strike – because it is very risky. I came back from Takeo province to see my brother dead in the hospital.”
The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, whose protests calling for a re-election following last July’s ballot and the resignation of Prime Minister Hun Sen have coincided with the garment strikes, said the violence was totally unacceptable.
“I condemn the act of violence. I condemn the use of armed forces led by the CPP to kill their own people,” he said. “We cannot stand still and be calm. The CNRP will do its best to show solidarity with the workers. On the 5th, more people will [join demonstrations].”
Sovann said the opposition would not let “powerful people kill their own people.”
“The CNRP together with the people” had organised a ceremony, also being referred to as a peace vigil, at Freedom Park today, Sovann added.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy this evening met with demonstrators at Freedom Park and began visiting victims in hospital.
In a statement released after the violence, the Ministry of Labour said the CNRP – not just the six unions groups it has previously attributed blame to – had encouraged “provocative behaviour” for their own political benefit.
“They have to cooperate with authorities,” the statement says. “The ministry will call the five unions to meet on January 8 to discuss this.”
A statement from the Ministry of Defence also took aim at the opposition, saying it had “provoked” outrage after July’s election by saying the military had been deployed to the streets and by urging soldiers and civil servants “not to fulfil their obligations” in protest against the election result.
“RCAF would like to appeal to the public to ignore such provocative and inaccurate information that could lead to violence and affect social order and national security in Cambodia,” the statement says.
Phnom Penh City Hall issued a statement blaming “anarchists” for the violence.
“The group of anarchists has used violence, blocked roads, burnt private property, intimidated investors [in economic zones] and threatened to set fire to factories in that area,” the statement says.
“Due to the high risk presented, the authorities were forced to take action to disperse these anarchists, who caused violence leading to clashes that injured both the authorities and some anarchists.”
But it also blamed politicians – though without naming the CNRP – for “causing unrest, chaos and violence that affected workers, investors and social order”.
The bloodshed follows violence yesterday at the Yakjin factory, in the capital’s Por Sen Chey district, when soldiers, armed with an array of weapons, injured dozens, including 15 people they also arrested.
According to the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, the five monks arrested in that incident – who authorities accused of being “fake monks” who had damaged private and public property – were released the same night.
The remaining 10, including Vorn Pov, president of the Independent Democracy of Informal Economic Association (IDEA), were taken to court this morning and charged with intentionally causing damage with aggravating circumstances and acts of violence with aggravating circumstances. They were sent to Prey Sar prison.
In the wake of that violence, the CNRP yesterday announced it would not attend planned negotiations with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party today over the political deadlock, which still has the opposition boycotting its 55 seats in the National Assembly.
In response to the violence, the US embassy, via its website, put out a “security message” to its citizens in Cambodia, warning them to avoid areas southwest of Phnom Penh International Airport.
“You should remain alert to local security developments by monitoring local news reports, be vigilant regarding your personal security and preparedness, be aware of your surroundings, and plan your activities accordingly,” the message says. Additional reporting by Sen David and Khouth Sophak Chakrya