Documents removed from the South Korean embassy’s Facebook page following a media firestorm over that nation’s alleged role in last week’s violence provide unprecedented insight into the Cambodian government’s thinking prior to the crackdown and suggest officials initially aimed to take a “cautious” approach.
Accused in recent days of leaning on the government to forcefully crack down on striking garment workers to protect South Korean-owned factories, the South Korean embassy yesterday vehemently denied the allegations, saying such claims were “ill-intentioned” and based on false information.
In several international media reports published this week, South Korea stood accused of urging the Cambodian government to send soldiers and police to protect business interests. But an embassy representative said yesterday that South Korean officials met with army and police representatives on Saturday – after the brutal crackdown on demonstrators on Thursday and Friday by authorities that left at least four dead and scores injured.
While the embassy has subsequently removed the official security notices posted on its Facebook page, updates designed to reassure South Korean citizens and businesses of their safety go into considerable detail about normally secretive meetings between diplomats and government officials.
South Korea is one of Cambodia’s largest investors and a key stakeholder in the Kingdom’s garment and textile manufacturing industry, with about 60 South Korean-owned factories operating in the country.
The embassy’s catalogued efforts included meetings with the National Counter-Terrorism Committee, Foreign Ministry officials, the armed forces and police.
In a December 27 meeting between Ambassador Kim Han-soo and Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Ouch Borith, the ambassador asked the government to make a “concerted effort to solve the problem for the sake of the safety of [Korean] apparel companies”, one notice said.
But Borith responded that the government was taking a cautious approach due to “pressure from Western nations on the issue of the protection of human rights”, according to a translation of the statements by the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions.
Borith added, however, that the Cambodian government would not continue to neglect the situation, and would respond in a “different manner” within the current week.
In a banquet hosted by the ambassador on the same day, with a coterie of high-ranking government officials, Kim again asked for the government to find a resolution to the strikes.
In response, senior minister Om Yentieng said that “lessons learned from the bloodletting under the Pol Pot regime mean the Cambodian government has to respond to the current situation in a cautious manner”, according to the translation of the statement.
The embassy also wrote to Prime Minister Hun Sen, opposition leader Sam Rainsy and numerous ministries to express its concerns and ask for a resolution to the tense situation, the notices reveal.
“We believe that these efforts prompted deep consideration from government authorities and prompted them to a rapid response,” one statement from the embassy said, a claim that South Korean embassy counsellor Lee Hyung-jong yesterday defended as a “matter of nuance”.
South Korean government officials also accompanied business representatives to meet with armed forces, leading to the military subsequently taking special measures to protect Korean firms in the Canadia industrial park, according to one of the embassy notices.
The embassy yesterday emphasised that this meeting – and the subsequent military protection – only occurred on Saturday, a day after police opened fire on striking garment workers at the industrial park where two Korean-owned companies operate.
Last week’s violence began on Thursday morning at the partly Korean-owned Yakjin factory, in the same district, when tensions boiled over between soldiers and protesters, leading to clashes.
“Until [Saturday] January 4, we had not contacted the military side [and] actually the instance in Canadia industrial park took place on the 3rd, and that’s why many Korean factories were concerned about the [unrest],” Lee told the Post.
The South Korean embassy only ever “requested general help and assistance” and did “not mention any specific measures to be taken by the Cambodian authorities”, he added. “You might agree it is quite clear that the embassy is not in a position to force or put pressure on the Cambodian government to take military action.”
Lee declined to condemn the killing of protesters.
“We have no comment at all about the Cambodian government’s action or plan. We are only concerned and interested in the security of the Korean community and Korean companies.”
The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, which has held protests outside the Cambodian embassy in Seoul in recent days, has accused Korean companies and the government of playing a role in the suppression of garment worker protests.
“I was very surprised, in that [the embassy] officially said that they put pressure on the government. Even they contacted the police and military,” said Mikyung Ryu, international director for the confederation.
“I think many Korean citizens replied [to the Facebook postings] to condemn the Korean embassy, and I think the global media covered it, and then they deleted it to destroy the official evidence,” she said. “Basically, we can guess they didn’t know it would be problematic at first.”
Lee, from the embassy, said yesterday the message was taken down after it caused “unnecessary trouble”.
Cambodian People’s Party senior lawmaker Cheam Yeap, chairman of the Korea-Cambodia Friendship Council, said that the South Korean ambassador had expressed his concerns to him at a New Year’s banquet.
“They just asked us to resolve the problem, but [the measures that were taken] was not on their request,” he said.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said that a number of embassies had voiced their concerns during the strike.
“[Cambodia] does not do anything under anyone’s direction except under Cambodian law and the authority’s competence. Investment and property have to be protected,” he said.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY VONG SOKHENG