The United Nations human rights office said Tuesday it is “deeply alarmed” by the “disproportionate use of force” by Cambodian security forces who had violently cracked down on workers’ strikes and opposition protests last week, calling for a “thorough” probe on the action that had led to at least four deaths.
“We are following the situation in Cambodia with serious concern and are deeply alarmed by the disproportionate use of force by law enforcement officials in responding to demonstrations," spokesman for the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Office (OHCHR) Rupert Colville said in a statement.
The U.N. statement, which came four days after police shot dead four people and wounded nearly 40 others during a strike by garment and footwear workers in the outskirts of the capital Phnom Penh, called on authorities and security forces to “exercise utmost restraint” while responding to protests in the nation.
“We urge the Cambodian authorities to launch a prompt and thorough investigation and to ensure full accountability of members of security forces found to have used disproportionate and excessive force,” the statement said.
He said police actions during demonstrations should comply with international human rights obligations and standards.
A day after Friday’s deadly shootings on striking workers demanding higher minimum wages, security forces dispersed supporters of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) from Freedom Park in Phnom Penh where they have been holding daily protests calling for Prime Minister Hun Sen to resign and hold new elections following disputed July polls.
The Ministry of Interior then issued a ban on all demonstrations in Phnom Penh “until public order and security is restored” apparently over concerns that protests by opposition supporters and workers could escalate amid the closure of nearly all garment and footwear factories.
Colville said that the OHCHR acknowledged the challenges authorities face in maintaining public order and called on all protesters to exercise maximum restraint while voicing their concerns to the government.
Authorities maintain that security forces opened fire on the protesting workers last week after they were attacked with stones, sticks, and homemade Molotov cocktails.
“Acts of sporadic violence during public gatherings must not be used as an excuse to deprive others of their right to freedom of peaceful assembly, a right that must be protected and promoted by the authorities,” Colville said.
He added that 23 people, including at least one minor, were detained following the clashes, and that their whereabouts remain unknown.
“We urge the Cambodian authorities to allow all those held incommunicado to have access to their families, legal representation, and, if needed, medical care,” he said. “If not charged with a legally defined offence, they should be released immediately.”
Meanwhile on Tuesday, tens of thousands of garment and footwear workers returned to their jobs at factories around Cambodia in the aftermath of last week’s crackdown, with some expressing concerns over how they would be treated by their employers.
A worker from Kampong Cham province named Kim Sokda told RFA’s Khmer Service that she had returned to her job at Phnom Penh’s Canadia Industrial Park after her co-workers informed her that the situation had returned to normal, but said that many other workers remained in their home provinces out of fear for their safety.
“My friends called on me to return, so I did, though I haven’t started working yet,” she said.
Another worker named Saroeun who had just returned to her factory at the industrial park said that she was forced to overcome her fear of further violence because she was desperately in need of income.
“I am afraid, but the workers have said the situation is fine,” she said.
RFA reporters witnessed a continued military presence near the industrial park Tuesday and said that homes in the area remained shuttered in the aftermath of last week’s crackdown.
Reuters news agency reported that between 65 and 70 percent of workers had returned to factories as of Tuesday, citing the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC), which represents more than 500 factories in the country.
Some 350,000 workers had gone on strike in the past two weeks, and GMAC secretary-general Ken Loo had put the losses suffered by members at more than U.S. $200 million.
The Phnom Penh Post quoted GMAC president Van Sou Ieng as saying that in addition to missed profits, orders are expected to decrease by 20 to 30 percent this year, factories will have to rush through shipments to meet deadlines by using expensive air-freight options, and Cambodia will be thought of as high-risk by global brands, which will reduce prices.
While the strikes may have fizzled out for now, Reuters quoted president of the Free Trade Union Chea Mony as saying that workers would return to the streets on Jan. 14, when CNRP leader Sam Rainsy and his deputy, Kem Sokha, appear in court to respond to charges they incited workers to strike.
Also on Tuesday, international buyers of garment and footwear produced by manufacturers in Cambodia issued an open letter to Hun Sen and his government, GMAC and six workers’ unions, calling for an immediate and peaceful resolution to the current dispute.
The letter—jointly delivered by representatives from retailers H&M, Gap, Adidas, Puma, Levi Strauss, Columbia and Inditex—expressed “deep-felt concern” over the tragic events which took place on Jan. 3,” adding that the signatories “strongly oppose all forms of violence.”
“It is with great concern that we have observed both the widespread civil unrest and the government’s use of deadly force,” the letter said.
“Our primary concerns are for the security and safety of the workers employed by our suppliers and the long-term stability of the Cambodian garment industry.”
The retailers called on all parties to “exercise maximum restraint and refrain from the use of force or violence.
The letter also urged the government, GMAC and the unions to immediately join in negotiations and to support a regularly-scheduled wage review mechanism, which it called “fundamental” to peaceful wage negotiations in the future.
It said that an agreement to cease the use of violence and enter into negotiations would allow workers to safely return to work without fear of repercussions as soon as possible.
As worker unrest died down, scores of teachers launched a strike calling for a raise in salary to 1 million riel (U.S. $250) per month—more than three times that of the average primary school instructor.
Ouk Chayavy, a teacher from Kandal province, told RFA that she and other teachers had begun their strike on Monday and would continue until their demands were met.
“We are calling for a salary increase to 1 million riel and we will continue to strike until the government agrees to our demands,” she said.
Educators from Koh Kong, Kampong Thom, Pursat, Oddor Meanchey, Battambang, and Siem Reap provinces, as well as from Phnom Penh, had also joined the strike, teachers told RFA.
Hy Sambath, a teacher from Siem Reap, said that school instructors in his province had refused to hold classes and hung banners in front of their schools demanding the raise.
“Many teachers are on strike, and we will do the same tomorrow,” he said.
Cambodian Independent Teachers Association (CITA) president Rong Chhun, who also leads the Cambodian Confederation of Unions umbrella organization representing striking factory workers, said that his organization did not put the educators up to the strike.
“Their stomachs are hungry and they can’t teach,” he said.
Teachers at primary schools make around 300,000 riel (U.S. $75) each month, while junior high school teachers make 400,000 riel (U.S. $100) and high school teachers make 500,000 riel (U.S. $125).
Last week, the Interior Ministry threatened to revoke the license of the CITA if it went ahead with demonstrations seeking higher wages for the country’s educators, saying the move was in direct response to Rong Chhun’s involvement in garment worker strikes and his affiliation with the CNRP.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.