Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Strikers, police clash

Strikers, police clash

A young man is chased and beaten by police after an SL Garment factory demonstration turned violent
A young man is chased and beaten by police after an SL Garment factory demonstration turned violent in the capital’s Stung Meanchey district yesterday. Vireak Mai

Strikers, police clash

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.

Police open fire at rioting garment workers near the Stung Meanchey pagoda in Phnom Penh
Police open fire at rioting garment workers near the Stung Meanchey pagoda in Phnom Penh. Pha Lina

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.

Protesters hurl stones and bricks at a brigade of riot police during a deadly clash in front of Stung Meanchey pagoda in Phnom Penh
Protesters hurl stones and bricks at a brigade of riot police during a deadly clash in front of Stung Meanchey pagoda in Phnom Penh. Pha Lina

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.

A rioter smashes a police motorbike with a rock as a military police vehicle burns during clashes in Phnom Penh
A rioter smashes a police motorbike with a rock as a military police vehicle burns during clashes in Phnom Penh. Pha Lina

“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.”

MOST VIEWED

  • Hong Kong firm done buying Coke Cambodia

    Swire Coca-Cola Ltd, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Hong Kong-listed Swire Pacific Ltd, on November 25 announced that it had completed the acquisition of The Coca-Cola Co’s bottling business in Cambodia, as part of its ambitions to expand into the Southeast Asian market. Swire Coca-Cola affirmed

  • Cambodia's Bokator now officially in World Heritage List

    UNESCO has officially inscribed Cambodia’s “Kun Lbokator”, commonly known as Bokator, on the World Heritage List, according to Minister of Culture and Fine Arts Phoeurng Sackona in her brief report to Prime Minister Hun Sen on the night of November 29. Her report, which was

  • NagaWorld union leader arrested at airport after Australia trip

    Chhim Sithar, head of the Labour Rights Supported Union of Khmer Employees at NagaWorld integrated casino resort, was arrested on November 26 at Phnom Penh International Airport and placed in pre-trial detention after returning from a 12-day trip to Australia. Phnom Penh Municipal Court Investigating Judge

  • Sub-Decree approves $30M for mine clearance

    The Cambodian government established the ‘Mine-Free Cambodia 2025 Foundation’, and released an initial budget of $30 million. Based on the progress of the foundation in 2023, 2024 and 2025, more funds will be added from the national budget and other sources. In a sub-decree signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen

  • Two senior GDP officials defect to CPP

    Two senior officials of the Grassroots Democratic Party (GDP) have asked to join the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), after apparently failing to forge a political alliance in the run-up to the 2023 general election. Yang Saing Koma, chairman of the GDP board, and Lek Sothear,

  • Cambodia's poverty cut in half from 2009 to 2019: World Bank report

    A report published by the World Bank on November 28 states that Cambodia’s national poverty rate fell by almost half between 2009 and 2019, but the Covid-19 pandemic recently reversed some of the poverty reduction progress. Cambodia’s poverty rate dropped from 33.8 to 17.8 per cent over the 10