Editorial | Articles about Cambodia | Khmer
Phnom Penh - Amid the excitement of massive pro-democracy protests that took over the streets of Phnom Penh in late December and early January, the largest such demonstrations in the country's history, a dark side has emerged.
Alongside cries for greater government transparency and less corruption, and calls for Cambodia's strongman prime minister, Hun Sen, to step down, some street protesters have been shouting anti-Vietnamese slogans, reflecting opposition leader Sam Rainsy's longtime animus toward the Vietnamese - a conspicuous blotch on his otherwise strong human rights record.
Protests by opposition supporters and garment workers culminated on January 3, when at least four workers were shot and dozens wounded by military police along Veng Sreng Street in the capital's outskirts. Less widely reported has been the fact that demonstrators shouting racial epithets looted at least three Vietnamese-owned businesses that day nearby, and are reported to have destroyed several more. Many ethnic Vietnamese residents of the area have fled the country.
Sok Min, 27, the owner of a café near Veng Sreng Street that was destroyed by anti-Vietnamese protesters, said he lost $40,000 in the attack and sent his terrified wife and two children back to Vietnam indefinitely.
"They came to destroy everything," he said as he surveyed his damaged shop shortly after the attack. It was denuded of furniture and covered in shards of glass and empty coffee bags. "They said I am a Vietnamese and they don't like it."
During July elections here, the liberal Cambodian National Rescue Party, led by Rainsy, made major gains against the long-entrenched government of Hun Sen, who has led the country since 1985, after climbing to power on the back of a 1979 Vietnamese invasion that ousted the genocidal Khmer Rouge.
After a 10-year occupation, Vietnamese forces withdrew from Cambodia in 1989, but Hun Sen's Cambodia People's Party still maintains a friendly relationship with this country's more powerful eastern neighbour, a historical enemy turned ambivalent ally.
Because of this history, Rainsy has long maintained fierce opposition to alleged Vietnamese encroachment into Cambodia that, some say, teeters perilously close to bigotry. Although Rainsy insists he does not condone violence against ethnic Vietnamese living here, his speeches over the course of his two-decade political career have often included harsh rhetoric against the unpopular minority, telling supporters he will make sure they are removed from Cambodia.
In 2009, he led a rally to uproot border markers he said were illegally placed in a Cambodian rice field. He was later prosecuted for racial incitement and forced to flee the country.
In a visit to Phnom Penh this week, the UN's special rapporteur for human rights in Cambodia, Surya Subedi, made a rare rebuke of the opposition. Subedi said he was gravely concerned about recent shootings of protesters and other serious rights violations by Hun Sen's government, but also about the tone of the CNRP's rhetoric and the race-based lootings along Veng Sreng Street.
"I am alarmed by the anti-Vietnamese language allegedly used in public by the opposition," he said in a statement Thursday.
Ou Virak, a prominent activist who heads the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, has spoken out about his fears that Rainsy is engaging in potentially dangerous race-baiting, and condemned the leader's frequent, often emotionally-charged use of the term "yuon"- a word for the Vietnamese that can be derogatory in some contexts.
In return, over the past month he has been subjected to a torrent of online abuse, and even death threats, over his comments. The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders has issued an urgent statement about Virak's situation, calling upon Rainsy to publicly speak out against the threats, which the opposition leader has not yet done.
Virak says the CNRP's focus on the Vietnamese is pure scapegoating that diverts attention from more pressing issues facing all Cambodians, such as poor infrastructure, rapid deforestation, and rampant human rights abuses by Hun Sen's government.
"They are using race politics to blind our judgment and our ability to debate the many credible issues that affect people's daily lives," he said.
When asked why he had not condemned the threats against Virak, Rainsy told Al Jazeera that he condemns all forms of violence.
He added that Subedi's criticisms were based on a "misunderstanding and misinterpretation" of Cambodian language and culture.
"The Cambodian people in general, and the Cambodian National Rescue Party, in particular, we do not view any country, any people, as hostile. But we consider that the current policies of the current government in Vietnam, their policies toward Cambodia are not very friendly, not very constructive," he clarified, citing allegations of Vietnamese encroachment along the border and Vietnamese companies granted concessions to log in forests here.
But even if Rainsy himself condemns violence, he may not be in full control of the anti-Vietnamese sentiment he has mobilised in the streets. During opposition demonstrations, cries of "yuon animals" and "yuon dogs" can often be heard from street protesters, often directed toward police and security forces.
Phuong Sopheak, 27, is a fervent opposition activist who joined the CNRP in June. Inspired by the possibility of change, he attends many anti-government protests, including the one along Veng Sreng Street. He says he likes the CNRP's proposals to help Cambodia develop faster, but is especially drawn to the party's stance against Vietnamese migration. He is also convinced that many top government officials are Vietnamese masquerading as Cambodians.
"They sent their people to Cambodia and installed Hun Sen as the leader, and they want to get Cambodian territory," he said
He said that many small-scale Vietnamese businessmen like Sok Min were actually spies, although they did not deserve to be the victims of violence.
"Some of those coffee shop owners are spies coming to get information from Cambodia," he said. "Of course they may claim that Cambodia is a good place for business and living, but I have seen their identity cards and they are Vietnamese police."
In adopting a harsh tone toward the Vietnamese, Rainsy and the CNRP are cannily exploiting a long and complicated history of mutual mistrust between Cambodia and Vietnam that has been punctuated by outbreaks of violence. The Mekong Delta region was Cambodian territory until it was conquered by Vietnam in the 18th century; many Cambodians remain bitter about the loss, pointedly referring to the area as "lower Cambodia."
During their rule in the late 1970s, the Khmer Rouge adopted virulently anti-Vietnamese policies. The internal purges that convulsed the regime in the years before its ouster were driven in part by paranoia over possible Vietnamese spies, while Pol Pot's bloody anti-Vietnamese pogroms along the border were the impetus for Vietnam's 1979 invasion, which drove the Khmer Rouge into Thailand.
Hun Sen still enjoys a cozy relationship with Hanoi, his longtime patron, and his closeness to Cambodia's historic enemy provides an easy target for the CNRP. On a recent visit to Vietnam, he delivered a speech in fluent Vietnamese about friendship between the two nations; a YouTube clip of the event quickly garnered hundreds of angry comments.
The government has also undoubtedly been lax in enforcing immigration laws when it comes to Vietnamese economic migrants like Sok Min, many of whom are, in turn, unswervingly loyal to the CPP.
'They lost everything'
Cheam Yeap, a senior CPP lawmaker, defended the government's policies toward Vietnam as a simple matter of expedient cooperation with a powerful neighbor.
"The CNRP paints Vietnam as an enemy and discriminates against a nation that is our neighbor," he said. "It's very dangerous, and strongly affects our national interests - Vietnamese tourists and investors will be scared and stop coming."
David Chandler, a professor emeritus at Monash University who has studied Cambodia for decades, called Rainsy's accusations against the Vietnamese "claptrap".
"[Rainsy] seldom documents his accusations," he noted. "To be sure, Vietnamese agribusinesses are causing harm in Cambodia, but so are Malaysian ones, Korean ones, Chinese ones." He said it was unlikely that small-scale shopkeepers and other economic migrants from Vietnam were harming Cambodian interests.
Ben Daravy was busy this week sweeping up the shophouse she owns along Veng Sreng Street and trying to get it in shape for another tenant. The previous renter, a Vietnamese single mother, fled on January 3 after a mob broke down the door of her coffee shop, carried away her furniture and cooking equipment, and threatened to burn down the building. The woman escaped out the back door with her daughter and never returned.
"They brought gasoline to burn down the house, and they would have burned it down, but a neighbor stopped them, telling them that the real owner of this shop is Khmer and not Vietnamese," Ms. Daravy said, her voice rising.
"The Vietnamese owner lost everything, I lost a lot, and I cannot help her at all," she said.
Source: Al Jazeera
Labels: Mass Rally, Prime Minister Hun Sen, Rally, Vietnamese, Vietnamese influence, Vietnamization of Cambodia
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GlobalPost exclusive: As workers who stitch for Western brands demand a livable wage, South Korea urged Cambodian forces to protect corporate interests.
Screenshot of Korean flag emblem on fatigues, foreground left (from Facebook video).
SEOUL, South Korea and PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Conspiracy theorists frequently accuse rich countries of “puppeteering” in the developing world, quietly pushing governments to deploy thugs to protect wealthy — and sometime abusive-corporations.
There is truth to this, but it's rare to uncover on-the-ground examples of how this string-pulling works.
Cambodia's current conflict over garment wages provides one such example, GlobalPost has learned.
In recent months, the impoverished Southeast Asian country has been enmeshed in a series of strikes involving garment workers who stitch clothes for Western brands. Workers are demanding a doubling of the minimum wage, saying they can’t live on their current $80 monthly income.
Late last week the government responded with a violent crackdown. Elite units wielding Chinese-made weapons, batons, and steel pipes chased protesters through the streets. Five were killed and dozens were injured.
Although the garments are destined for the US, Europe and Japan, South Korean companies reap much of the financial gain, playing the role of middleman between laborers and Western brands. Korean-owned factories employ legions of low-wage workers, churning out clothing for fashion-hungry markets. In 2012, Seoul was the largest investor in the country with $287 million in projects, beating out its behemoth of a neighbor, China.
Now, South Korea has emerged as a behind-the-scenes actor in the crackdown. The embassy admits that in recent weeks it has been running a backdoor campaignto protect Korean business interests. This campaign has included turning to the brutal and battle-hardened Cambodian military to implement security measures.
Seoul and Phnom Penh maintain a brotherly bond that goes beyond money. South Korea’s previous president was also an economic adviser to the Cambodian prime minister. Korea was the first democracy to congratulate the ruling party on an election July 2013 election win that human rights groups say was loaded with irregularities — and that sparked the wave of labor and political demonstrations that ended late last week.
In other words, there are "national" interests at stake. Those interests have apparently translated into protection for Korean companies — particularly as protesters stepped up their game, launching raucous assaults on factories.
On Thursday, an elite paratrooper unit showed up at a protest armed with batons and steel pipes, beating a dozen monks and demonstrators in front of a factory run by Yakjin, a joint Korean and American corporation that supplies garments to Gap, Old Navy, American Eagle and Walmart.
On Friday, the repression took a darker turn. Hundreds of battlefield troops, including some from the prime minister’s personal bodyguard brigade, shot and killed five demonstrators in another area of Phnom Penh, the Canadia Industrial Park.
Sound terrible? Not everybody thinks so.
In a long-winded statement in Korean on Monday, the South Korean embassy took credit for convincing the Cambodian government to “understand the seriousness of this situation and act swiftly.” It cited high-level lobbying over the past two weeks as contributing to the “success” of protecting business interests.
The embassy boasted that Korean factories at the Canadia Industrial Park, where the Friday killings took place, were handed a special favor as a result of diplomats’ efforts. Their buildings were the only ones to get special protection from soldiers, the statement claimed. Seeking resolution to the strikes, Korean officials pushed their case to dignitaries who don’t exactly put labor strikes in their portfolio: the powerful head of Cambodia’s Counter-Terrorism Unit, who reports directly to the prime minister, and other top military officials.
“As a practical measure, military forces and police have been cooperating closely with us to protect Korean companies since we visited the capital defense command headquarters with Korean businessmen to tell them about the situation, and as a result, to prevent any arson attempt or looting, military forces are directly guarding only Korean companies among many factories in the Canadia complex,” read the statement, discretely posted on an official Facebook page that is not widely viewed (see screenshot at the bottom of this article).
Another statement added that, since December 27, Korean officials have appealed in a letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen, the country’s strongman for nearly three decades. Unable to meet directly with the dictator, the embassy held talks with members of his cabal: Om Yienteng, chairman of the government’s human rights committee, Ouch Boritth, one of many “secretaries of state” in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and at least four other top officials.
Not everyone agrees with the embassy’s version of events. Yakjin, the garment maker,insists that military police arrived in the spur of the moment owing to protest violence on Thursday. The clear-out, the company says, wasn’t planned. “People, and not just the labor union, gathered and tried to literally push into the factory,” said Kong Sokunthea, an administrative officer at the center. “There is a military unit behind the factory, and a worker [inside the factory] knew a soldier, so we asked the military to step up.”
“The military came in front of the factory door and tried to convince the workers to return, but they declined, so the military got a few people. The government’s order was also the reason why the military was able to subjugate the strike in such a fierce manner,” she said.
She denied that Yakjin had been in cahoots with the Korean government, and was unaware of any Korean meetings with the military.
A representative from Yakjin’s head office in Seoul hung up on GlobalPost when asked about possible government involvement.
Government officials and industry representatives interviewed by GlobalPost, too, could not confirm that any discussions took place between Korean and Cambodian officials. “I don’t know about any meeting between the higher-ups, but there could be a request or suggestion from the businessmen as it is the economic zone…they must have requested we help maintain security and protect their interests and properties,” said Kheng Tito, a spokesman for the military police.
Even if there was Korea-Cambodia engagement, “I don't think private sector had any authority to order the military to take action,” said Ken Loo, secretary general of the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia (GMAC), a membership body of garment companies.
On Tuesday, GMAC dismissed the five deaths as “collateral damage.” The group complained that weeks of labor unrest will cost the industry $200 million, the Cambodia Daily reported.
Among Cambodian soldiers at the scene of a demonstration, GlobalPost also identified an individual bearing a South Korean flag emblem on his army fatigues. The individual, who has not been identified, was captured in a video of the demonstration aftermath posted on Facebook on Thursday (he appears at the one-minute mark; screenshot below). His identity could not be verified.
Government officials denied the individual had any connection to the Cambodian or Korean militaries. “He could be the company’s security guard,” said Kheng, although he appears to be wearing a military uniform. Phay Siphan, a spokesman for the Council of Ministers, told GlobalPost: “The Cambodian military unit does not have Korean flag bearers. What you saw could be a private individual and not a unit from Korea.”
But others weren’t so certain. Over the past decade, the South Korean military has dispatched a handful of officers to advise the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, said one Korean scholar of Cambodia who asked not to be named.
And South Korea is a known patron of the prime minister’s bodyguard unit, Brigade 70, despite reports of human rights abuses — including the shooting last week.
In 2011, for instance, Seoul helped fund a $28 million tank storage facility run by the brigade. But human rights groups accuse the unit of numerous abuses, including a 1997 grenade attack at an opposition rally that wounded an American aid worker and invited an FBI investigation.
Say Mony contributed reporting from Phnom Penh. Park Jeong-min contributed reporting from Seoul.
Labels: GMAC, Prime Minister Hun Sen, South Korea, South Korean president Lee Myung-bak, Workers
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As the government deploys AK-47s against protestors, an official asks, 'Do you want to wear clothes made by people who live in fear?'
BANGKOK, Thailand — In Cambodia, garment workers who stitch the jeans and hoodies that hang in American closets are demanding a raise. Instead, they’re receiving beatings and bullets.
In the past decade, clothing tagged “Made in Cambodia” has grown increasingly common in the malls of America. Shoppers who peel back lapels in H&M, The Gap, Urban Outfitters and other outlets will find many items sewn in the troubled Southeast Asian nation’s factories.
But this booming industry is now in crisis.
Rallies for pay hikes have descended into chaotic scenes in which protesting Cambodians, some armed with sticks and Molotov cocktails, have been shot dead by government forces with AK-47s. The death toll stands at four with nearly 30 injured, according to the Cambodian NGO Licadho.
Images of protesters pummeled and soaked in blood have circulated on Cambodians’ Facebook pages. Districts in the capital of Phnom Penh where garment stitchers work and live are now patrolled by Cambodia’s military, which is enforcing a ban on assembly.
Many factories are closed after workers have fled the city to their home provinces, said Mu Sochua, an activist and parliamentarian-elect with the nation’s opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party.
“The workers are now hiding. They’re living in fear,” Mu Sochua told GlobalPost. “Do you want to wear clothes made by people who live in fear?”
The striking workers’ primary demand is a raise. They want $160 per month — a near doubling of the current typical payout. The government has offered to raise the minimum wage but not beyond $100, a salary many workers deride as too low to cover rising costs of food, schooling and medical care.
“With the wages they get today,” Mu Sochua said, “they can’t even get three nutritious meals in a day.”
Stitching blouses and T-shirts for the West — namely America, the top destination for “Made in Cambodia” clothes — has helped transform the nation’s economy. According to the International Labor Organization, garment stitching is the country’s “largest industrial sector” employing 400,000 workers and accounting for $5 billion in annual exports, 35 percent of GDP.
Economists call the garment industry a “first rung” on the ladder from farm-based society to industrialization. Sewing jeans in a hot factory is dull and exhausting. But for many, particularly uneducated women born on farms, it is preferable to toiling in sun-baked rice paddies. Foremen may be fickle and cruel but so is nature.
Western clothing conglomerates favor Cambodia for the same reasons they like countries like Vietnam and Bangladesh. All are poor enough to provide a large pool of people who’ll work long hours for little money. But they’re not as unruly as, say, Somalia or Sierra Leone, where the chaos is so thick that trucks and ships can’t effectively get shipments to market.
Meeting the workers’ $160-per-month demand probably wouldn’t price multinationals out of Cambodia, said David Birnbaum, an Asia-based American garment industry consultant and five decade veteran of the trade. That wage is still competitive with China’s provincial minimum wage ($141) and that of the Philippines ($177).
“The problem is not raising to $160 per month,” Birnbaum told GlobalPost. “The problem is they feel $160 per month will give rise to future expectations that are unsupportable. There is a feeling in the industry that this is a bad road to follow.”
Part of the blame for Cambodia’s raucous strikes, he said, can be laid upon Cambodia’s unions, which have failed to secure ample wage hikes for workers through negotiations.
“This is because the Cambodian union system is corrupt,” Birnbaum said. “The factory management will take union leaders and say, ‘I think you should take a course in management. The course, by the way, is in Paris and lasts three years.’ They just pay off union leaders instead of paying the workers.”
“When unions don’t do their job,” he said, “people just go out on the street.”
The protesters’ brutal handling by Cambodian cops and troops is lamentable.
But it’s not entirely surprising.
Practically all of the country’s institutions — from courts to police — are dominated by a single party helmed by a strongman premier, Hun Sen, who has controlled Cambodia for 28 years. With Middle Eastern leaders such as Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak deposed during the Arab Spring, he is now among the world’s longest-running non-royal heads of state.
Hun Sen has little patience for dissent. Asked if he might fall as did Arab Spring dictators in 2011, the premier is quoted by Human Rights Watch’s Asia director, Brad Adams, as saying, “I not only weaken the opposition, I’m going to make them dead ... and if anyone is strong enough to try to hold a demonstration, I will beat all those dogs and put them in a cage.”
Despite his dictatorial style, since the early 2000s Hun Sen has presided over a period of relative stability by Cambodian standards. Those, standards, however, are anything but typical. The country’s 20th-century history is a litany of massacres, starvation and foreign occupation.
In recent decades, Cambodia has suffered perhaps more than any other nation except for North Korea. During the US-Vietnam War, American bombers dropped more bombs by tonnage into Cambodia (then a haven for Viet Cong guerrillas) than all Allied Forces aircraft dropped during World War II.
The ensuing chaos gave rise to the Khmer Rouge, a hyper-communist regime that controlled Cambodia from 1975-1979. This violent revolution led by the infamous Pol Pot sought to remake society into a peasant utopia through brute force.
The result: nearly 2 million dead from starvation, killing and forced labor. Hun Sen, now 61, was a Khmer Rouge battalion commander who defected to help lead an invading Vietnamese-installed government that ran Cambodia from 1979 until the late 1980s.
Any future negotiations between the garment strikers and the government are complicated by the fact that protests are now aligned with Hun Sen’s major opposition: the Cambodia National Rescue Party. The political faction is actively protesting July 2013 elections that, according to party leaders, relied on fraud to nullify its rightful victory.
The party has co-opted the garment strikers’ campaign. The government, as the Phnom Penh Post reports, has since portrayed the strikers as a “group of anarchists” that have “used violence, burnt private property, intimidated investors ... and threatened to set fire to factories.”
The International Labor Organization has warned protesters that “violence and destruction of property are not legitimate tools of industrial action,” a Britishism that loosely translates to non-violent striking. During protests last week, bonfires and hurled stones heightened tension in police-patrolled factory zones in Phnom Penh.
“But you have to look at proportionality,” Mu Sochua said. “What is proportional between rocks — or even Molotovs — and AK-47s?”
“Now it’s totally confrontational,” Birnbaum said. “It’s a very complex and unfortunate situation. And it’s a shame because Cambodia is a poor country that has the potential for a very solid industry.”
But Mu Sochua, one of the opposition’s leading voices, insists the factory workers’ demands fit in with a louder chorus of voices demanding the end of Hun Sen’s rule. Roughly half the country’s GDP is supplied by foreign donors — including the US — and their aid, she said, is wrongfully propping up his regime.
“This is the crusade of a dictator. The crusade of a former Khmer Rouge. Does the international community want to continue to support this kind of dictatorship ... and support international buyers who make billions while our workers are deprived of basic rights?”
Labels: Clothes with Blood, CNRP, Garment, Prime Minister Hun Sen, Workers
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By THOMAS FULLER - The New York Times
Published: January 4, 2014
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Seeking to quash one of the most serious challenges to the nearly 30-year rule of the country’s authoritarian leader, Cambodian authorities evicted antigovernment protesters on Saturday from a public square and banned all public gatherings as a court summoned two opposition leaders for police questioning.
After months of inaction in the face of growing public dissent to his rule, Prime Minister Hun Sen appeared to signal that he was entering a more aggressive posture toward his critics. The crackdown came after a clash on Friday between protesting garment workers and the Cambodian police that left four of the demonstrators dead. The workers have been at the forefront of growing protests against Mr. Hun Sen’s government.
Mr. Hun Sen’s party claimed victory in July elections, which the opposition and independent observers say were riddled with irregularities. Since then, the opposition has called for him to step down.
In a country with a history of violence against opposition figures, the two opposition leaders wanted for questioning, Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha, appeared to go into hiding.
“They are in a safe place,” said Mu Sochua, an opposition politician who was elected as a lawmaker in July but has boycotted Parliament along with the rest of the opposition.
Last weekend, the opposition staged a protest march of tens of thousands of people through the streets of Phnom Penh, an act of defiance on a scale rarely seen during Mr. Hun Sen’s more than 28 years in power. After the crackdown Saturday, the opposition announced it was canceling a march planned for Sunday.
In a statement, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party urged its followers to remain calm “while the party seeks alternative ways” to continue its campaign against Mr. Hun Sen’s government.
Many parts of Phnom Penh were unaffected by the crackdown, including the main tourist area along the Mekong River. But elsewhere, hundreds of police officers and soldiers blocked roads, broke up crowds of bystanders and cordoned off the public square, known as Freedom Park, where the protesters had been gathering.
The dispersal of demonstrators from Freedom Park by the police and others was highly symbolic. In 2009 the government officially designated the square as a place where Cambodians could express themselves freely, roughly modeling it on Speakers’ Corner in London. The square has been the center of protests led by the opposition since the elections in July. Protesters who have camped out there since mid-December have included Buddhist monks, elderly farmers and human rights advocates.
The Cambodian Center for Human Rights, an independent advocacy organization, accused the government on Saturday of a “violent clampdown on human rights” and said protesters were chased out of the square by “thugs dressed in civilian clothes” who were armed with steel poles and other makeshift weapons, an observation corroborated by journalists who were present.
A number of protests during Hun Sen’s time in power have been broken up by shadowy groups. In 1997, a grenade attack on a protest led by Mr. Sam Rainsy left at least 16 people dead.
On Saturday, Cambodia’s Ministry of Interior issued a statement saying that the eviction of protesters “was conducted in a peaceful manner without any casualties.” Recent protests, the statement said, “led to violence, the blocking of public roads and the destruction of public and private property,” an apparent reference to the clashes between garment workers and soldiers on Friday, among other recent episodes.
The statement said all protests and public assembly were banned “until security and public order has been restored.” It also advised “all members of the national and international community to remain calm and avoid participating in any kind of illegal activity that could have negative consequences on the national interests.”
Mr. Hun Sen has been credited with stabilizing the country after the brutality of the Khmer Rouge, whose genocidal policies led to the deaths of 1.7 million Cambodians. But in recent years he has accumulated highly centralized power, including a praetorian guard that appears to rival the capabilities of the country’s regular military units.
Economic growth that has brought modernity and prosperity to Phnom Penh has exposed stark inequalities in the country, where well over a third of children are malnourished. Only one-quarter of the Cambodian population has access to electricity. The streets of Phnom Penh are shared by luxury cars and families of four squeezed onto dilapidated motorcycles.
Garment workers, who number in the hundreds of thousands, have been the most aggressive in seeking higher wages. Striking workers are demanding a doubling of the monthly minimum wage to $160 from $80, an increase that the industry says will make it uncompetitive.
In the clash on Friday, garment workers confronted officers with rocks, sticks and homemade firebombs. The police fired into the crowd with assault rifles, witnesses said. In addition to the protesters killed, at least 20 people were injured.
Labels: Chaum Chao, CNRP, Mass Rally, Mu Sochua, Prime Minister Hun Sen, Sam Rainsy, Veng Sreng, Workers
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By Nathan A Thompson
Four people were killed and 21 more were injured in Cambodia this morning, when police opened fire with AK-47s into a group of protesters. The deaths come after months of tension and escalating violence between the authorities and garment workers who are demanding higher wages.
That tension began to arrive at a head on Thursday evening, when a police battalion in Phnom Penh were beaten back from an apartment block that had been seized by protesters during a day of demonstrations. By this morning, the military cops were engaged in a standoff on Veng Sreng Boulevard – one of the main roads out of the Cambodian capital – and the makeup of their opponents was a curious one. The factory workers, 90 percent of whom are women, had at some point been replaced by groups of metal pole and machete wielding young men, gathered together behind rows of Molotov cocktails.
As you might imagine, the atmosphere was tense. The military police stood in their black ranks, their weapons glinting in the sun, until they chose to respond to a barrage of rocks and bricks with gunfire. A nearby clinic that had refused to help the injured was ransacked. One of the injured was a pregnant woman who had been trying to escape the chaos.
The tragic scenes come after several months of striking by workers at the SL Factory, which supplies Western chains with clothes. The SL workers' own strike ended on the 22nd of December, just in time for them to join a nationwide strike on Christmas Day. The deaths this morning weren't the first. A protest in November saw an innocent bystander – a food vendor named Eng Sokhom – killed by a stray police bullet to the chest, with a further nine getting wounded and 37 arrested. The crackdown actually started last August, when 19 union members were fired and SL Factory shareholder, Meas Sotha, brought his private guards into the factory for "security".
Though the 19 workers were later reinstated, clearly that didn't do much in terms of quelling the rage felt by SL's employees.
The aggro isn't confined to the SL Factory. The Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia (GMAC) estimates that over a quarter of working days in the last two years have been lost due to strikes. I lost a working day last May when I found my road home blocked by three enormous concrete pipes that had been dragged into place by cheering, pyjama-wearing factory workers (pyjamas are acceptable daywear in Cambodia).
While men on scooters tried to circumnavigate the blockade by slipping and sliding through a drainage ditch, I stopped and talked with those involved. I found a story that would repeat itself at the gates of factories throughout Cambodia – the workers said they needed higher wages but the bosses said they could not afford to pay them. Both agreed that the onus was on Western chains to pay more for the garments they were buying.
Cambodia’s clothing industry makes up 80 percent of the country's exports and employs 400,000 people, with an estimated 300,000 more working in supporting roles. Almost all are young, female and poor. As a result, rural Cambodian villages are devoid of school-leavers as they get absorbed into the industry. It's a punitive cycle. I lived in a Cambodian village and noticed the older girls from my English class kept disappearing. “Where’s Srey Neung?” I would ask. “She’s gone to work in a factory," would come the typical reply.
Srey Neung, like many her age, now works 60 hours per week in order to send £18 home to her family. She’s lucky to be starting work in 2013. Ten years ago, the situation for workers was atrocious. Rina Roat started her working life in the factories back in 2003. She told me that her basic salary was £27 per month. She had to work up to 20 hours a day including overtime to support herself. She suffered from depression and exhaustion but was too afraid to complain in case she lost her job. She's now an entrepreneur but her hands remain thick with scar tissue from years spent tending to the machines.
Since Rina’s day, there have been small improvements. The minimum wage per month has increased from £27 to £48 between 1997 and 2013. But is this enough to cover the cost of living? Joseph Lee, Director of SL Factory, told me that the minimum one of his workers needed to survive is £35 per month – that’s if they shared a tiny room with four others, ate only super-cheap Ramen noodles and commuted in overstuffed cattle trucks.
That’s nowhere near enough, said Ath Thorn, the president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union (CCAWDU). He pointed out that Cambodia’s Ministry of Labour found that garment workers needed at least £95 per month to cover the cost of living. This kind of bickering between factories and unions is typical and often results in protests and violence.
Joseph Lee says this year has been the worst he can remember. He told me that his driver was left half blind after a clash between strikers and security staff at the factory on the 1st of November. The driver was trying to escape the ruckus when a ball bearing was fired from a slingshot. It exploded his eyeball on impact. Lee also alleges that a worker who didn’t want to join the protest was hit by a brick on his way to work. “He used to be the most handsome man in the factory but not any more,” Lee explained. “I want to increase wages but how can I when the buyers keep pushing me to reduce my price?”
One buyer has taken some responsibility. H&M have chosen two factories in Bangladesh and one in Cambodia to pilot a scheme where they interview the management and staff to discover what is a living wage and supply the extra funds from their own profits. They have pledged to pay a living wage, but not until 2018. Koh Chong Ho, the general manager of SL Factory, told me that if the buyers increased their price he'd be able to pay his workers more and that this would go a long way to creating peace and stability in the industry.
Clearly Western brands need to take more responsibility but that won’t solve the problem completely; not while corruption remains uncurtailed. Cambodia is ranked as the 17th most corrupt country in the world by Transparency International. Kol Preap, executive director of Transparency International Cambodia told me that while there are no exact figures, he knows that garment factories pay massive bribes to officials. Koh declined to comment on this.
Opposition party the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) claim to have been cheated out of winning last summer’s elections and have seen their ranks swell with garment factory workers after promising them their desired wage increase to £160 per month. The pressure on Prime Minister Hun Sen is mounting. Everyone's waiting to see what will happen on Sunday, when the CNRP has called for another demonstration.
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Heng Reaksmey, VOA Khmer
02 January 2014
PHNOM PENH — At least 15 monks and five other people were injured in a violent crackdown on striking workers Thursday, after a special military unit was called in to deal with demonstrators outside a Phnom Penh factory.
The clash, between demonstrators and troops from Special Command Unit 911, took place after protesters began throwing rocks at soldiers, officials said.
The soldiers were seen carrying metal pipes, knives, AK-47 rifles, slingshots and batons, according to rights workers. The clash took place outside the Yak Jin factory, which is thought to produce for international brands GAP, Walmart and Old Navy.
The violence comes amid continued protests by workers over the minimum wage. But it also comes after ongoing anti-government demonstrations over the last two weeks and ahead of negotiations between leaders of the ruling and opposition parties to end the demonstration and political impasse.
At least 10 people, including four monks, were subsequently arrested. Rights groups said the deployment of Unit 911 was unprecedented “and signals a disturbing new tactic by authorities to quash what have been largely peaceful protests.”
Among the injured was Von Pov, head of the a union that represents the informal economy, who was beaten unconscious.
Nuth Rumduol, a lawmaker-elect for the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, who was also injured in the violence, said Unit 911 soldiers were “aggressive” in their handling of the demonstrations.
One young man, “a simple bystander,” was taken by soldiers and beaten with sticks, Nuth Rumduol said. “He was not armed and did not throw any stones,” he said. “This happened right before my eyes.”
Chap Sophoan, commander of Unit 911, said he ordered the crackdown.
“Do we have to stand idle and get attacked, or what?” he told VOA Khmer. “My soldiers obediently followed my orders. Who is responsible, when we say, ‘Don’t throw stones at us,’ but they still do?”
Rights workers say the crackdown was excessive and unwarranted.
The group Licadho and the Community Legal Education Center issued a joint statement condemning the attacks and arrests of demonstrators.
“We are gravely concerned for the safety of those still held, especially in light of recent threats to leaders of unions and informal associations,” Naly Pilorge, Licadho’s director, said in a statement. “Some of those held are believed to have been severely beaten as they were arrested. Monks and workers from nearby factories were also beaten by military police during the earlier clashes.”
Both groups called on authorities to ensure the safety of those in detention, provide medical attention to those who are injured, and to release anyone not charged with a clear criminal offense.
“We urge all those currently involved in protests and labor disputes and the authorities to abide by the law, exercise restraint and remain peaceful,” Moeun Told, head of the Community Legal Education Center’s labor program, said. “There must be an end to violence, arrest and discrimination of those seeking to exercise their rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining.”
Labels: CNRP, Election 2013, Mass Rally, Prime Minister Hun Sen, Workers
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Robert Carmichael - Voice of America
December 29, 2013
PHNOM PENH — In Cambodia Sunday, tens of thousands of people marched through the streets of the capital calling on Prime Minister Hun Sen to quit. The public outpouring of sentiment in recent months against the long-time leader is unprecedented, and has brought together opposition party supporters and many of Cambodia’s 400,000-strong garment workers.
Before leading the huge march through the streets of Phnom Penh, opposition leader Sam Rainsy told the crowd at Freedom Park in the city center that this is a historic day and that the will of the Cambodian people will prevail.
Rainsy said all Cambodians believe Hun Sen’s government is illegal, adding that the prime minister would hear their voice. He said everyone wants to see a change in leadership, and he called for fresh elections.
The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which Sam Rainsy leads, stunned the ruling party in July when it came close to winning the general election. The opposition has since claimed the election was stolen.
It initially sought an independent investigation into the ballot.
But Prime Minister Hun Sen - who has been in power for nearly three decades - rejected that, and talks between the two sides quickly stagnated.
The 55 opposition MPs-elect have refused to take up their seats in the 123-seat National Assembly. They want Hun Sen to quit and a second election held next year. Hun Sen has rejected both of those demands, too.
So for the past two weeks, the opposition has staged daily rallies and marches in Phnom Penh, drawing between a few thousand supporters and - on Sunday a week ago - as many as an estimated 40,000.
The march this Sunday saw even more people turn out. Counting crowds is a notoriously tricky task, but this march was clearly much larger than last week’s. Once again, the refrain was that Hun Sen must go.
Expressing such sentiments publicly in Cambodia even a year ago would have been unthinkable, and is indicative of how far the country’s political landscape has shifted.
The opposition has been boosted by wide segments of society: from civil servants fed up with low wages, to ordinary citizens tired of corruption, Buddhist monks speaking out against the senior clergy’s coziness to the ruling party, and garment workers, angry at the government’s announcement on Tuesday to raise the minimum wage from $80 a month to just $95.
Garment workers say that is not enough - with prices in the markets rising fast, as are rents. Many are forced to work overtime simply to make ends meet.
Touch is one of the protestors demanding that the minimum wage rises to $160. The 35-year-old Touch has worked for a decade in a factory that makes jeans for Levi-Strauss. She and her husband are able to send home a small monthly sum to her parents in the village who look after their two children.
She says there are two reasons she came Sunday. One is to have the minimum wage increased to $160. The other is for Hun Sen to step down.
Cambodia’s garment industry is the country’s key foreign exchange earner - worth more than $5 billion this year, mostly in exports to the U.S. and the European Union. The sector is also Cambodia’s biggest formal employer, with 400,000 workers.
But wages have not kept pace with inflation, and over the years the industry has been hit by hundreds of strikes. Last year saw more than half a million days lost to strike action; this year will likely see one million days lost, by far the worst in its two-decade-long history.
So it was little surprise that the announcement of the $15 raise saw tens of thousands of garment workers walk out. In response the trade body that represents the factory owners advised its 470 or so members to close, citing the risk of violence. Many have done so.
Although unions affiliated to the ruling party did back the pay rise, independent unions and those linked to the opposition rejected it. On Friday, leaders of the last two groups met senior officials at the Ministry of Labor to discuss new wages terms, while 2,000 workers blocked the road outside. They failed to reach a deal and are scheduled to meet again Monday.
Touch reckons a deal is at some point inevitable - but pledges that until one is concluded, she and her fellow workers will stay on strike.
She says she expects the government will find a solution for the workers, but doesn't know how long that will take.
The opposition continues to reap political capital from the dispute over the minimum wage. Earlier this past week, Sam Rainsy told workers they should stay on strike until they get $160 a month.
Labels: CNRP, Mass Rally, Prime Minister Hun Sen, Sam Rainsy, Workers
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By THOMAS FULLER - The New York Times
Published: December 29, 2013
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Tens of thousands of antigovernment demonstrators marched through Phnom Penh on Sunday in one of the biggest acts of defiance against the nearly three decades of rule by Cambodia’s authoritarian prime minister, Hun Sen.
The procession, which was peaceful and stretched for several miles through a commercial district of Phnom Penh, the capital, brought together protesters with a diverse list of grievances: Buddhist monks, garment workers, farmers and supporters of the main opposition party.
They were united in their calls for Mr. Hun Sen to step down, their chants — “Hun Sen! Get Out!” — echoing down the broad avenue where they marched.
In July, Mr. Hun Sen’s party claimed victory in disputed elections that the opposition and many independent monitoring organizations said were deeply flawed. Mr. Hun Sen formed a government despite the growing protests by the opposition, which has boycotted Parliament and is calling for new elections.
Cambodia’s political stalemate and protest movement have been somewhat overshadowed by the turmoil in nearby Thailand, where antigovernment demonstrators are rallying to block elections and install a “people’s council” to govern the country during what they describe as a hiatus from democracy.
But some analysts in Cambodia describe the past few months here as a watershed for Cambodian society, which for years has been dominated by the highly personalized rule of Mr. Hun Sen, whose party has tight control over major institutions in the country, including the army, the police, the judiciary and much of the news media.
Protesters blocking traffic and marching through downtown Phnom Penh remain a jarring sight after years during which the main message from the government has been that people should be grateful for the unity and development that Mr. Hun Sen brought to Cambodia after many years of war.
“It seems like a turning point in the history of civil society,” said Yeng Virak, the executive director of the Community Legal Education Center, a Cambodian human rights organization. “People feel more free to join protests and to identify themselves as part of the opposition.”
The continued vigor of the protest movement five months after the elections appears to be a reflection of the deep pool of resentment in the country toward Mr. Hun Sen.
One woman who took part in the march on Sunday, Meng Phang, 59, shouted to onlookers, including stone-face police officers, that “Hun Sen and his family are getting richer but everyone else is getting poorer.”
Ms. Meng Phang’s participation also represented another crucial factor of the protests: the sustained financing of the movement. Ms. Meng Phang said she had donated about $1,000 to the protest movement from money she had saved while working in a factory in Japan.
Kem Sokha, one of the protest leaders, singled out contributions “from our people abroad” in a speech to protesters on Sunday evening. There are large Cambodian populations in Australia, France and the United States, among other countries.
The grievances among protesters on Sunday were varied. Sok Heng, a middle-aged carpenter, lamented the lack of justice in the country and mentioned the case of his brother-in-law, who was killed by a thief. The police asked for a bribe before agreeing to arrest the suspect, he said.
Touch Vandeth, 24, was one of thousands of garment workers on strike, demanding a doubling of the minimum wage to $160 a month, a sharp increase that would put wages well above those of Cambodia’s regional economic competitors, including Myanmar, Bangladesh and Vietnam. Ms. Touch Vandeth, who assembles Adidas footwear at a factory on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, said she had been unable to save much money on her current salary, $80 plus overtime.
Chay Soheaktra, one of the many Buddhist monks taking part in the demonstration, said he was angry that Mr. Hun Sen’s government had given a forestry concession to a Vietnamese company. Anti-Vietnamese rhetoric has been a mainstay of the protest leaders, who portray Mr. Hun Sen as a puppet of Vietnam. (Mr. Hun Sen is Cambodian but came to power with the aid of an invading Vietnamese Army that pushed the Khmer Rouge from power in 1979.)
The Buddhist hierarchy is closely aligned with Mr. Hun Sen, but younger monks have joined the protests — sometimes in defiance of their elders — and are particularly angry at the theft of precious Buddhist relics this month from a Buddhist shrine. Monks question how a national treasure was so poorly guarded — especially when hundreds of security officers guard the residences of Mr. Hun Sen and other top officials.
Ou Virak, the president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, an independent advocacy organization in Phnom Penh, said the theft of the relics might be among the biggest problems for Mr. Hun Sen. In a country where superstition plays an important role, the theft could be taken as a supernatural sign.
Mr. Hun Sen is unpopular with a broad portion of the Cambodian electorate, Mr. Ou Virak said. But many people, especially business leaders, are not convinced that the opposition is ready to govern the country. He cited the opposition’s embrace of the doubling of the minimum wage, claiming that the country could lose tens of thousands of jobs to neighboring countries.
“The majority of the people want change,” Mr. Ou Virak said. “But they don’t know what that change would look like.”
Labels: CNRP, Election 2013, Mass Rally, Prime Minister Hun Sen
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Dissatisfied by a minimum wage increase, thousands of striking garment factory workers on Thursday joined Cambodia’s opposition supporters in mass demonstrations calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Hun Sen and a re-election.
The footwear and textile factory workers gathered for the first time with opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) faithful in Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park, where supporters have held 12 days of “nonstop” mass protests following disputed July elections they say were tainted by fraud.
The government announced earlier this week that the monthly minimum wage for garment workers would be increased from U.S. $80 to U.S. $95 starting from April next year, though unions have been demanding U.S. $160 per month beginning in 2014.
The announcement triggered waves of protests and calls for strikes supported by the CNRP, which during its campaign ahead of the July 28 election had vowed to raise wages for workers in Cambodia’s biggest export earning industry.
On Thursday, the workers gathered with CNRP supporters in the park, airing their grievances before joining a five-hour, 10-kilometer (six-mile) march through the capital.
Authorities monitored the gathering, but allowed it to proceed unhindered.
Ath Thon, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers' Democratic Union, told RFA’s Khmer Service that the workers would not accept the newly announced wage increase, adding that the workers’ movement “cannot be stopped” and comparing it to a “dam that has been broken.”
He demanded that the government accept the workers’ demand of U.S. $160 per month “if they want to stop the strikes.”
The Associated Press quoted CNRP leader Sam Rainsy as pledging to assist the workers during Thursday’s gathering.
“I'm aware of the difficulties facing the workers and have helped them for 20 years. Now I am ready to help them again,” he said.
“That is the difference with Hun Sen, who is sticking with factories owners.”
The protest came as roughly 300,000 workers from some 100 of Cambodia’s more than 500 garment and footwear factories went on strike Thursday to protest the wage announcement, reports said.
The Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC) has recommended that its members stop operations for a week, citing fears that demonstrators might damage factories if workers do not join the strikes.
Invitation to talks
Also on Thursday, the Ministry of Labor’s Committee to Resolve Strikes invited six prominent union leaders, including Ath Thon, Free Trade Union president Chea Moni and Cambodian Confederation of Unions president Rong Chhun to talks, calling on them to end the worker unrest.
Committee secretary general Prak Chanthoeun warned that the government would take legal action against any union that provokes workers to strike.
“We intend to educate [the workers], but if [the unions] continue to provoke the workers to act out in a way that threatens security, they will face legal action,” he said.
Prak Chanthoeun said that the workers are being “exploited by the CNRP” and warned that the strikes would scare off investors, who would turn to other countries to do business.
“The strikes have impacted the workers,” he said. “If the workers continue to strike, the investors will run away and they will only be hurting themselves.”
GMAC senior official Cheath Khemara told RFA’s Khmer Service that if Cambodia’s garment factories were to immediately increase the minimum wage of the workers to U.S. $160 it would negatively impact the sustainability of investment in the industry.
"We can't simply increase wages by 100 percent or it will affect investment,” Cheath Khemara said.
“If we do that, both [the workers and the factories] will die,” he said, adding that investors would look to the Lao and Vietnamese markets for lower worker costs.
Meanwhile on Thursday, Cambodia’s Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel) urged the government to hold a re-election to avoid violence that could come from a continued power struggle.
“If you politicians are mature, we must seek a compromise to avoid any violence,” Comfrel board of director committee chairman Thun Saray said during a conference in Phnom Penh held to unveil a report on irregularities in the July election.
“If there is violence, there will be bloodshed and Cambodians will lose their lives,” Thun Saray, who is also director of rights group Adhoc, told reporters.
On Sunday, in the largest demonstration since the disputed July elections, some 500,000 CNRP supporters marched through the streets of Phnom Penh calling for Hun Sen to step down and to announce new polls.
The CNRP, which has boycotted parliament saying it was robbed of victory due to poll fraud, launched daily mass protests on Dec. 15 to force a re-election after its calls for an independent election probe into irregularities were dismissed by the government.
It has vowed to keep up daily protests for three months or until there is a fresh vote.
But Hun Sen last week rejected the call for his resignation and fresh elections, saying there is no provision in the country's constitution that allows for a re-election.
Comfrel director Koul Panha said Thursday that the two parties have exhausted all options through political talks, including the possibility of a power sharing agreement and for an investigation into election irregularities.
“The best choice now is to have an election as soon as possible. That way the victor will win with dignity and the loser will be satisfied.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
Labels: CNRP, Election, Election 2013, Garment, Rong Chhun, Worker
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By Zsombor Peter, Cambodia Daily
The December 28, 2013
Prime Minister Hun Sen on Thursday signed off on nine wide-ranging deals with his Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Tan Dung during a state visit that ends Saturday, including arrangements to tighten media, public security and trade cooperation, according to Cambodian and Vietnamese state media.
Cambodian state news service Agence Kampuchea Presse (AKP) also reported that Mr. Tan Dung asked Mr. Hun Sen to “protect” Vietnamese investors in Cambodia and expressed hope that bilateral trade would hit $5 billion by 2015, nearly double the $2.7 billion achieved in 2013.
According to AKP, Mr. Hun Sen in turn asked Vietnam to sell electricity to Cambodia at the price both sides had agreed to, to share water along their common border and to finish a road Vietnam is building in neighboring Ratanakkiri province.
Mr. Hun Sen’s state visit to Vietnam comes amid opposition-led protests in Cambodia calling for the prime minister’s resignation, and the airing of long-running resentments here against Vietnamese illegal immigration and investments accused of encroaching on Cambodian land. The protests themselves were triggered by national elections in July that the opposition accuses the CPP of stealing through fraud.
Among the deals the two leaders signed, AKP said, was a credit agreement of an undisclosed amount of money for construction of the Chrey Thom-Long bridge in Kandal province, an extradition treaty, and unspecified cooperation plans between the ministries of information and education, and state security agencies. Other deals covered bilateral trade enhancement, the shipment of goods and a fertilizer purchase agreement.
AKP reported that Mr. Hun Sen and Mr. Tan Dung also discussed their plans to celebrate the 35th anniversary of January 7, the date in 1979 on which Vietnamese forces and Khmer Rouge defectors toppled the Pol Pot regime. Though habitually marked by the CPP, the opposition considers that date the start of a decade of Vietnamese occupation during which Hanoi installed Mr. Hun Sen in power.
Mr. Hun Sen, speaking in fluent Vietnamese, also gave a public address to hundreds of Vietnamese veterans of the war in Cambodia and met with Vietnam’s former President Le Duc Anh, who planned the invasion that toppled Pol Pot. Mr. Hun Sen also laid a wreath at Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, according to a report on the VTV 1 channel.
Mr. Tan Dung is scheduled to pay a state visit of his own to Cambodia on January 13 and 14 for the groundbreaking of the Chrey Thom-Long bridge and the inauguration of a Vietnamese-built hospital in Phnom Penh.
Labels: Prime Minister Hun Sen, Vietnam
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In the largest demonstration since the disputed July elections, hundreds of thousands of Cambodia's opposition party supporters marched through the streets of the capital Phnom Penh on Sunday calling for Prime Minister Hun to step down and to announce new polls.
"This is a historic day," Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) President Sam Rainsy declared, estimating that about 500,000 people participated in the march seeking the ouster of the longtime premier following July 28 elections marred by fraud and other allegations.
"The demonstrators demand Hun Sen step down," he said, shouting, "Hun Sen please step down." The crowd echoed his demand.
"[T]here were about 500,000 protesters who occupied a length of 5 kilometers [about 3 miles] of the long, wide and straight Monivong Boulevard in Phnom Penh," Sam Rainsy said on his Facebook page, posting photos of the mass gathering.
"The head of the CNRP procession already reached the corner with Mao Tse Tung Boulevard when its tail was still at Democracy Square [Freedom Park]. Given the people density of the crowd as seen on these photos [about 100 persons per meter] the number of protesters could easily reach 500,000," he said.
The CNRP, which has boycotted parliament saying it was robbed of victory due to poll fraud, launched daily mass protests a week ago to force a re-election after its calls for an independent election probe into irregularities were dismissed by the government.
It has vowed to keep up daily protests for three months or until there is a fresh vote.
But Hun Sen on Friday rejected the call for his resignation and fresh elections, saying there is no provision in the country's constitution that allows for a re-election.
“They ask me to resign, but what have I done wrong?” Hun Sen said. “I obtained my position by means of the constitution and I will only leave it by means of the constitution,” he said.
Hun Sen, who has been premier for the last 28 years, said that according to article 78 of the constitution, the National Assembly shall not be dissolved before the end of its five-year term, except when the government is twice deposed within a period of 12 months.
Sam Rainsy insists that the party is determined to get to the bottom of the election irregularities, saying the people had been denied of their choice of government.
"CNRP's strength comes from the people's strength. Nobody can win over the people's strength," he said.
After the July polls, the government-appointed National Election Committee (NEC), which oversees the country’s polls, declared Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP) the winner with 68 seats in parliament to the CNRP’s 55, but the CNRP claimed it won at least 63.
The NEC and the CCP have both said that all claims of poll irregularities have been investigated and rejected, making an independent probe sought by the opposition as unnecessary.
Talks between the two parties to break the political stalemate have stalled after their latest meeting last month yielded little progress, with the CPP calling on elected CNRP lawmakers to end their boycott and resolve any complaints from within parliament.
The CNRP last week threatened to block key highways leading into the capital Phnom Penh and seize state buildings if the government continues to ignore opposition demands.
Hun Sen had said the CNRP’s plan could harm the country’s “national security” and warned of government action.
“The government is tolerant of peaceful demonstrations but will not allow any illegal activities that provoke social instability,” he said on Friday.
Protesters fed up
Some of the demonstrators who participated in the march Sunday from their base at Freedom Park to the city center said in speeches that they were fed up with various issues affecting the country, citing social injustice, corruption, unemployment and land grabs.
One protester, speaking from the top of a CNRP vehicle, told the crowd that she joined the demonstration because she could not find a job after graduation and after her father invested heavily on her education.
"I would like to ask Hun Sen to resign [so that] Sam Rainsy and [deputy CNRP president] Kem Sokha can help the students, regardless of whether they are poor or rich," she said.
Another protester said she wants Sam Rainsy to be the new prime minister.
The CNRP has deployed thousands of supporters to help maintain security during the protest marches and at Freedom Park, where many of them have camped out.
The heightened security came after several vehicles dumped garbage transported from elsewhere at the park in an apparent attempt to blame the party for the piles of trash accumulated in the area.
Reported by RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai
Labels: CNRP, hun sen, Mass Rally
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