A woman was killed and at least six others shot yesterday morning when police fired live ammunition into a crowd of hundreds of rioting garment workers in the capital’s Stung Meanchey district.
UN reports said police also arrested 37 people, including seven monks, as a result of the clash, which claimed the life of Eng Sokhom, 49, a rice vendor who was inadvertently caught up in the violence.
The bloodshed occurred after 600 striking employees at SL Garment Processing (Cambodia) Ltd., representatives from the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union (C.CAWDU) and the Cambodian Labour Confederation (CLC) attempted to march from SL’s Meanchey district location to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s house, where they planned to hold a demonstration.
Yesterday’s march marked three months since the beginning of the approximately 5,000-worker strike at SL.
While marching toward the premier’s house, demonstrators – many of them C.CAWDU members – were met by about 50 police bearing riot shields and batons, as well as several fire trucks blocking their way at Stung Meanchey bridge.
Initially peaceful, marchers stood toe to toe with police, carrying homemade signs, including a framed photograph of the prime minister and his wife.
But at about 9:30am, Post reporters observed CLC staffer Eang Kimhung shouting into a bullhorn for the crowd to continue. “Keep walking … for our collective benefit, for our rights and for justice, we must all struggle together,” Kimhung told the crowd, walking toward the line of police, shouting, “Go, go, go!” as he and the other protesters began scuffling with police.
A growing number of protesters hurled volleys of rocks and bricks at police, who fired water cannons into the crowd in response.
Police retreated to the other side of the bridge, leaving at least three officers inside the Stung Meanchey pagoda complex. One was seen running from his police truck as irate protesters pelted it with rocks, breaking windows and knocking out its windshield. The other two took refuge inside a pagoda building.
As demonstrators rolled the abandoned police vehicle into the street, turning it over and setting it ablaze, a crowd gathered in front of the building in which police had sought asylum.
Monks, who initially kept demonstrators at bay, gave way as the rock-throwing mob broke windows, eventually bursting through the building’s door. United Nations peacekeeping officials entered the small building, where the two officers were hiding inside a small, locked room after demonstrators had stripped them of their shields, batons and body armour.
At about 10:30, police, who now numbered more than 100, advanced across the bridge, shooting tear-gas canisters, rubber bullets and live ammunition into the crowd of hundreds on Veng Sreng Road and into the pagoda complex.
Standing at her food stand across the street from the pagoda, Vong Voleak, 23, wept after the onslaught. Her mother, Eng Sokhom, 49, died of a gunshot wound to the chest, she said.
“My mother and I were hiding next to our food booth to avoid the clash, but suddenly my mother was shot below her breast and fell down,” Voleak told reporters. “My father and others rushed her to [Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital] for help, but it was too late.”
In a phone interview after the riot, national military police spokesman Kheng Tito told the Post that the department had yet to confirm police were responsible for Sokhom’s death.
“We have to investigate and examine the body to find out if she died from bullets fired from police,” Tito said. “We cannot rush to the conclusion that police caused her death.”
Seng Sith, a 23-year-old striking SL worker who was shot in the arm during the melee, said the police’s severe response confounded him.
“They used the tear gas and gunshots on us after some of us threw small stones at them,” Sith said at the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital.
While the total number of those injured by gunfire remains unconfirmed, a Post reporter at the hospital was shown an X-ray showing a bullet lodged inside one of the wounded brought from the scene of the riot. Hospital staff said they were caring for at least three shooting victims at their facility.
A joint statement from rights group Licadho and the Community Legal Education Center says nine people – including a man critically injured by a bullet wound to the chest – were treated for gunshot wounds at Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital and Kossamak Hospital.
Toak Tin, a monk at the Stung Meanchey pagoda, told the Post he witnessed two men being shot by police with handguns inside the pagoda complex; one above the hip, and the other in the upper-thigh area. Both men were also rushed to a hospital, he added.
As demonstrators dissipated, at least six men inside the complex were dragged out and arrested. Police severely beat at least two of those men.
Tito confirmed that more than 10 people were arrested. However, according to the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 37 were arrested, including seven monks.
In a statement last night, the National Police said 27 police and military police were seriously or slightly injured in the clash and two police cars and two police motorbikes had been torched.
“We feel sorry for what has happened and will take measures to investigate this case,” the statement says, adding that workers should obey the Labour Law and resolve their issues in peaceful ways.
The protesters dispersed by noon and traffic resumed as if nothing had happened. But rights groups and NGOs immediately decried the use of live ammunition against demonstrators armed only with rocks and bricks.
“There is clear video evidence of Police Chief General Chuon Sovann ordering riot police to use violence against demonstrators, he must be held to account, stripped of his position and take legal responsibility,” says a statement from the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee. “Moreover, CHRAC demands a full and proper investigation into the death of Mrs Eng Sokhom.”
David Welsh, country director of labour-rights group Solidarity Centre/ACILS, said the riot was more violent than any he’s seen in the three years he’s worked in Cambodia.
“Regardless of any details, ammunition being fired at workers and/or the general population in Cambodia is totally unacceptable,” Welsh said.
The indiscriminate shooting into the crowd mirrored police action on the night of September 15, when Mao Sok Chan, 29, was shot dead during a clash between police and civilians at a blockade on the Kbal Thnal overpass.
In that case, police also opened fire on a large crowd of people with live ammunition. No official investigation into that shooting has begun.
Yesterday’s riot also occurred at the same location as an election day riot in July, during which residents who were angered when they were told they could not vote detained the polling station director inside the Stung Meanchey pagoda.
After yesterday’s bloody riot, Kong Athit, vice-president of C.CAWDU – the union that represents a large majority of SL workers – said that, although demonstrators sparked the turbulence, police hold 100 per cent of the blame for the violence.
“They sent four or five fire trucks, so their intent was clear: They wanted to crack down on the strike,” Athit said.
Further, he said, C.CAWDU’s attempts to resolve the SL strike have been stymied by the government.
“We’ve been listening to the government for the past three months,” said Athit, who said the C.CAWDU found out on Monday that the Phnom Penh municipality denied a permit it filed to hold the march. “[The government] just pushed us to the wall.”