Cambodian riot police shot a woman dead and wounded nine other people on Tuesday as they cracked down on a demonstration by employees demanding better working conditions at a factory supplying clothing to global retailers, sources said.
Rights groups strongly condemned the crackdown, which was one of the most violent against labor unrest in the country in recent years, and called for a probe into the use of excessive force by the police in suppressing the protests in the capital Phnom Penh.
Authorities said 47 police officers were injured in the clashes with the protesters which also saw a number of police vehicles torched. More than 40 protesters, including monks, have been arrested, according to rights groups.
The violence broke out mid-morning as around 100 police blocked some 600 protesters trying to march from the Singapore-owned SL Garment Processing factory to the home of Prime Minister Hun Sen to air their grievances over low pay and poor working conditions.
Local rights groups said the first wave of violence broke out at the Stung Meanchey bridge in the capital’s Meanchey district when protesters tried to push through a barricade on their way to Hun Sen’s home and collided with police, who turned water cannons on them.
Workers and onlookers retreated to a nearby pagoda, but were followed by five police officers who began beating people, according to a joint statement by Community Legal Education Centre (CLEC) and the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO).
The crowd turned on the five policemen, throwing rocks at them until they barricaded themselves inside one of the pagoda’s rooms.
The remainder of police then stormed the pagoda, “firing tear gas canisters and rubber bullets” which protesters responded to with another hail of rocks.
“Minutes into the operation, police officers switched to live ammunition and began shooting with AK-47s and handguns,” the statement said.
In the chaos, the five barricaded police officers managed to exit the room “and while leaving shot at an unarmed teenager inside the pagoda.”
A third wave of violence occurred when “hundreds of military police officers” were dispatched to the scene, where they charged at the crowd “shooting more tear gas and live ammunition.”
The authorities then “chased and cornered youths onto side streets beating a number of them bloody while proceeding [to detain] over 30 civilians and monks.”
In the aftermath of the clash, “several citizens were found injured by bullet wounds,” according to the statement, including Eng Sokhum, a 49-year-old rice vendor from a nearby market who died on her way to the hospital for emergency treatment.
The rights groups said that another man is in critical condition with a bullet wound to the chest, six men are in treatment for bullet injuries at the Soviet Friendship Hospital and another two people are being tended to at Kosamak Hospital.
They said that two policemen are reportedly being treated for tear gas poisoning and a head injury caused by rock throwing.
The two rights groups “strongly condemn[ed] the use of violence exercised by both authorities and civilians,” but called the police actions “disproportionate” and demonstrative of “the utter lack of will [on] the part of the authorit[ies] to seek a peaceful way out of today’s situation.”
They called for an investigation into the use of excessive force and live ammunition, a review of the arrests of 29 civilians and 12 monks who took part in the protest and for the government to intervene in the labor dispute between the workers and SL Garment, which supplies retailers Gap and H&M.
The Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) also condemned Tuesday’s violence in a statement, demanding authorities conduct a probe into the incident and “put in place mechanisms to ensure the death of innocent bystanders does not happen again.”
CCHR also called on the government to “ensure that all businesses operating in Cambodia respect the provisions in Cambodian law related to labor rights and the right to freedom of association, including those to collective bargaining.”
Kong Athit, vice president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union (CCAWDU) told RFA’s Khmer Service that the violence was sparked by the police who used water cannons to disperse the protesters.
“The police wanted to shut down a legal demonstration—this factor provoked violence,” he said, adding that workers had asked them ahead of time not to block their march to Hun Sen’s home.
“The authorities abused their power and did not protect the workers.”
Kong Athit said the protesting workers had not been paid since August, when they first began to hold demonstrations, and that the factory had also refused to comply with earlier orders by Hun Sen to address their demands, which drove them to strike again on Tuesday.
“The factory looks down on the government’s solution,” he said.
In addition to demands over pay, the workers have complained that the factory refused to remove a recently appointed manager which they say has repeatedly threatened them.
SL Garment director Iev Chansorn confirmed that the workers went on strike and held a demonstration after the factory refused to pay them according to their demands.
He added that the factory manager they have demanded removed from his position is a co-owner and cannot be asked to leave.
Call for justice
Vong Voleak, the daughter of rice vendor Eng Sokhum, who died from her gunshot wound, told RFA that her family wanted justice from the authorities.
“She was selling rice [inside her shop] when she was shot,” she said, adding that the authorities later accused her mother of having been one of the protesters who battled against police in the clash—a claim she denied.
“There is no use filing a complaint with the police … [they even] threatened me and accused me of being a demonstrator.”
In a statement signed by Cambodia’s top cop Neth Savoeun, who is also Hun Sen’s nephew-in-law, the National Police Commission expressed regret over the violence, but said that authorities had been forced to act in self-defense against “opportunists” who initiated the clashes.
“Some opportunists who are not workers incited violence against the military by throwing rocks, using slingshots and burning police vehicles. They took five officers hostage inside a pagoda when the police tried to do their work protecting the security of the demonstrators,” the statement said.
“This forced the police to take appropriate measures of self-defense to prevent the escalation of violence and also to protect the workers who protested peacefully.”
The commission said that two police cars, two motorbikes and two fire trucks were damaged.
The National Police Commission vowed to “take action to investigate the case.”
Around a half million people work in Cambodia’s garment industry, which earns some U.S. $4.6 billion a year producing goods for Western clothing firms, but workers often work long shifts for little pay, trade unions complain.
It is the country's biggest employer and key export earner.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.