Editorial | Articles about Cambodia | Khmer

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Cambodia protests unmask anti-Vietnam views




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."

'Alarming' statements

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.

'Misunderstandings'

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.

Historical legacy

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

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Wednesday, January 08, 2014

South Korea urged Cambodia’s military to crack down on protesters

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.

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The Cambodians who stitch your clothes risk everything for a liveable wage

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?”

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/asia-pacific/cambodia/140106/the-cambodians-who-stitch-your-clothes-are-riskin

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Sunday, January 05, 2014

Cambodia Cracks Down on Protest With Evictions and Ban on Assembly

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.

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Friday, January 03, 2014

MILITARY POLICE ARE KILLING THE CAMBODIANS WHO MAKE YOUR CLOTHES

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.

Follow Nathan on Twitter @NathanWrites and check out his website.

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Labor Demonstrators Injured in Clash With Elite Military Unit

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.”

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