Commandos from an elite military unit cracked down violently on striking garment workers in the outskirts of Cambodia’s capital on Thursday, arresting five monks and 10 others in a display of force that has been described by a rights group as unprecedented.
The soldiers from Special Command Unit 911 were deployed to crush the demonstration over minimum wages near the Yak Jin factory in Phnom Penh after more than a week of strikes that had led to the closure of hundreds of factories across the country.
Opposition politicians, who have been supporting the garment workers in their campaign for a doubling of the minimum wage, protested the military action, saying they would cancel planned talks with Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government over disputed July elections.
In quashing the demonstration, soldiers armed with rifles and shields hit protesters with sticks and batons, arresting 15 people including the monks and activist leaders, witnesses and rights groups said.
Some of the detainees were beaten severely as they were arrested and taken to the unit’s base nearby, rights groups said.
Local rights group Licadho called the crackdown “a blatant and illegal attempt to break a legal strike.”
The use of Unit 911 to suppress the demonstration “is unprecedented and signals a disturbing new tactic by authorities to quash what have been largely peaceful protests,” it said.
Authorities released the five monks late Thursday night after demonstrators staged sit-ins blocking national highways going through the city to demand the release of all those arrested.
The 10 workers remained in custody and will be taken to court on Friday to have charges filed against them, military police told RFA’s Khmer Service.
Among the detainees is union leader Vorn Pov, President of Independent and Democracy of Informal Economic Association (IDEA), who sustained a blow to the head requiring stitches.
Another of those arrested sustained a broken arm, witnesses said. RFA’s reporter saw one monk who was beaten and a demonstrator who was taken away to the hospital.
Military police spokesman Kheng Tito said the 15 were arrested because they were provoking other workers to go on strike.
“Their demands are beyond the limitation and have led to abuse of the law, so the authorities must implement the law to protect public interests,” he said.
Thousands of workers in the city have staged strikes and protests since last week to demand the government increase the minimum wage for garment and footwear workers to U.S. $160 a month, double the current rate.
The strikes have blocked roads in the capital and threatened to cripple the garment industry, which is a key national currency earner.
The strikes began after the ministry of labor announced a smaller increase in the wage, prompting workers to join mass protests being held by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) demanding Hun Sen step down over disputed national elections earlier this year.
CPP-CNRP talks derailed
The CNRP condemned Thursday’s crackdown, announcing that it was cancelling talks with officials from Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) about the election dispute that were set to begin Friday.
The two sides have been stuck in a political deadlock since the CNRP boycotted parliament in protest against the outcome of national elections in July it says were ruined by fraud. The CNRP has called for nonstop protests until the dispute is resolved.
In a statement announcing its decision, the CNRP said it was putting off the meeting “due to the violent crackdown” and that by ordering the move, the CPP-ruled government had violated promises made to the CNRP in September not to use violence against protesters.
“The CNRP will reconsider to return to talk to resolve political deadlock only when the CPP’s authorities stop using violence against the monks, workers, and the people,” the statement said.
The CPP said it was disappointed by the CNRP’s decision to cancel the talks, blaming the opposition for provoking social unrest by encouraging protests.
“The CPP is sad to see the CNRP’s statement that it has decided to postpone the talks because of a clash that was originally provoked by the CNRP. This shows that the CNRP has no will to seek political solutions through talks,” the party said in a statement.
“The CPP urges the CNRP to stop inciting any violent actions to provoke social unrest and to return to talks to resolve issues peacefully.”
Cambodian officials have called for workers to accept a more modest wage increase and stop the strikes, saying the demonstrations have provoked social unrest.
Earlier this week the Ministry of Labor announced it was increasing the planned wage hike by another U.S. $5, bringing it up from the current rate of U.S. $80 to U.S. $100 per month beginning in February.
It had previously promised a new rate of U.S. $95 per month would be implemented from April.
After the crackdown on Thursday, union leaders insisted they were sticking to their demands for a U.S. $160 monthly minimum wage to be instituted immediately.
Leaders from nine prominent unions gathered in Phnom Penh urged the Ministry of Labor to find a solution to the wage dispute by Saturday, saying they would stop the strikes if officials resumed negotiations with them by that time.
“Unions have agreed that if there is a solution, we will ask the workers to return to work but if there are no talks, the workers will continue their strikes,” CCU president Rong Chhun said.
Talks last week between six six union representatives and Ministry of Labor representatives failed to produce a compromise.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.