Authorities yesterday injured dozens of union leaders, garment workers and monks, arresting at least 15 of them, in a series of crackdowns against demonstrators protesting the industry’s minimum wage.
Garment workers and their supporters who were gathered yesterday in front of the Yakjin factory, off National Road 4 in the capital’s Por Sen Chey district, said tensions between demonstrators and soldiers from a local military base guarding the factory boiled over at 9am when soldiers began unprovoked attacks on them.
The demonstration occurred amid a national garment worker strike that began last week when the Ministry of Labour’s Labour Advisory Committee set this year’s minimum monthly wage for workers in the garment sector at $95 – $65 less than unions demanded. The ministry this week tacked another $5 onto the minimum wage, which will now rise to $100 next month.
As the groups stood face-to-face on the dirt road just off the main road, soldiers began throwing water bottles at demonstrators, who picked up the bottles and threw them back at soldiers, said Chean Kongkea, a 20-year-old employee at Korean-owned Yakjin.
The groups then exchanged volleys of projectiles, with soldiers using slingshots to fling rocks at demonstrators, said Sophorn, a witness who asked to be identified only by his first name.
During that first melee, soldiers also attacked people with batons, seemingly at random, Kongkea said. Soldiers grabbed two men off their motorbikes and three women from the crowd, heavily beat them and dragged them inside the grounds of the factory – which had dismissed workers for the day shortly before.
A second outburst came at about noon, when four monks who approached soldiers were allegedly severely beaten with batons and three also dragged inside, Sophorn said.
The fourth monk was beaten unconscious and taken by witnesses to the Choam Chao clinic and treated for his injuries.
Soon after the monks were beaten, which coincided with more throwing of projectiles from both sides, a group of about three soldiers surrounded Van Peuv, an employee with the NGO IDEA, unprovoked, and pummelled him severely, dragging him inside along with the others, said Uch Serey Juth, who was standing next to Peuv.
During Peuv’s beating, Serey Juth pleaded with soldiers for them to stop to no avail, he said. “They said only, ‘My boss ordered me to,’” Serey Juth said.
The scene remained tense for hours after the arrests, with Chab Sophorn, the soldier giving orders to the others, shouting for the demonstrators and onlookers to back up and initially refusing to allow UN peacekeepers inside the factory to see the injured arrestees.
Authorities eventually allowed a group of people, including Cambodia National Rescue Party member David Sovann, inside the factory, but those arrested had already been taken to the nearby base of the Special Forces Airborne 911 Unit, where they were being held, Sovann said after emerging from the factory.
Bloodstains on the floor of the factory led Sovann to suspect the people taken inside were further battered after their arrests, he said.
A statement from rights group Licadho and the Community Legal Education Center described the incident as “unprecedented” and a “violent crackdown” by soldiers armed with a number of weapons.
“The conduct of the authorities is a flagrant attack on the freedom of association of Cambodian workers and a blatant and illegal attempt to break a legal strike,” the statement says.
The two NGOs believed 10 people had been arrested, including at least four monks, Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association president Vorn Pao and Coalition of Cambodian Farmer Community coordinator Theng Savoeun.
In all, 15 people, including five monks were arrested, according to the National Police’s website.
“We are gravely concerned for the safety of those still held, especially in light of recent threats to leaders of unions and informal associations,” Licadho director Naly Pilorge said.
At the scene, Chab Sophorn defended actions taken against demonstrators. They posed a threat to Yakjin’s property, which they were charged with protecting, he said.
“I was ordered by my boss to protect the factory, so I have to protect the factory,” Chab Sophorn said. “They threw a lot of stones at us.”
Women from the Boeung Kak community, including Yorm Bopha, joined in, at times kneeling in prayer in front of soldiers standing in formation and at other times shouting at them. Monks standing in the front of a crowd of onlookers about 50 metres away from soldiers linked arms, refusing to leave as Sophorn ordered.
According to a press release issued by its partner firm last week, Yakjin Trading Corp, which also operates factories in Vietnam and Indonesia, makes clothes for Gap, Walmart and Old Navy, among other big brands.
The protesters strategy changed at 4:45pm, when about 400 people walked into National Road 4, blocking traffic on both sides with their bodies, tuk-tuks and motorbikes.
Just over an hour later, after several speeches made over loudspeakers attached to a tuk-tuk, the group mobilised, marching about a half-kilometre down National Road 4, and blocking it right in front of the street leading to the military base. Demonstrators soon blocked the base’s road as well, demanding authorities release the people being held.
Traffic on the main road backed up with headlights going back far in the distance. Demonstrators blocked attempts by several people on motorbikes to get past the human barricade in front of the military base road.
As he helped block the road, Sieng Sovannara, chief of the Khmer Krom monk community, said he did so because five of his monks were being held inside the base, accused of being “fake monks”.
“I decided to block the road because I want authorities to release the monks,” said Sovannara, who added that the monks there had been defrocked.
Chan Soveth, a senior investigator for rights group Adhoc, also decried the military response to an initially peaceful protest.
“It was very wrong, because they are soldiers,” Soveth said. “They have to protect the nation, not the factory, but they protect the factory and beat monks.”
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan defended soldiers’ role in detaining the monks and union leaders, comparing their role to that of the National Guard in the US.
“They have a job to protect the nation,” he said. “This is not a demonstration … this is a rebellion.”
Asked whether monks involved could be said to be a threat to national security, Siphan claimed they were “fake monks” who had destroyed public and private property.
“They are abusing the law. If you have the uniform, you need to own the ethics … the monk should be in the pagoda.”
At about 7pm, demonstrators left on their own accord.
Authorities later released the five monks at about 11:30pm.
Nearby, at the Canadia garment factory, authorities also carried out an unprovoked attack on peaceful demonstrators armed only with speakers, injuring 10 people, said Phoeun Chhorn, a 21-year-old worker at Canadia whose foot was injured during the crackdown.
A doctor at Ekreach Clinic said three people came in for treatment. Two were sent home and one was transferred to the Cambodian-Russian Friendship Hospital. In the wake of that incident, a group of protesters estimated at more than 200 strong blockaded the street and set large bonfires.
After midnight this morning, an estimated 500 police in riot gear moved in to remove hundreds of remaining protesters from outside the factory.
At the sign of movement, most of the crowd scattered, though a few remained, throwing rocks from a distance, as police fired warning shots into the air.
At least one man was seen being dragged from a nearby building after attempting to hide from the police.
Earlier yesterday, members of the six unions leading the strike announced they would suspend the strike if the government and the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia begins negotiations with unions within three days.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SHANE WORRELL, MOM KUNTHEAR, DANIEL QUINLAN AND BENNETT MURRAY