Drivers Jailed, Work Resumes in Bavet City

Six truck drivers who work transporting garment workers to and from factories in Svay Rieng province’s Bavet City were jailed on Friday on a trio of charges over their alleged roles in protests and riots that have rocked the industrial hub for the past week and a half, officials said.

Some 34,000 workers returned to their stations at factories inside the city’s Manhattan and Tai Seng special economic zones (SEZ) on Friday, following a government-ordered two-day suspension of operations.

The six drivers, who were arrested on Wednesday and Thursday, were charged at the provincial court in the morning.

“Investigating Judge Horm Mangse decided to detain them at the prison this morning,” said Tep Phalla, the court’s head of administration.

“They have been charged with intentional violence with ag­gravating circumstances, damaging state and private property, and incitement to commit a felony.”

Together, the crimes carry a maximum penalty of nine years in prison.

Provincial police and military police, who have cooperated to suppress the riots, could not be reached for comment.

An official with rights group Licadho said on Thursday that police had invited the drivers to the provincial police station, ostensibly for a training session on the traffic law, before arresting them.

After the protests peaked on Tuesday—with one group of workers pelting police with rocks and smashing the windshield of a fire truck that had been brought in to disperse them with water cannons —authorities held an emergency meeting between factory managers and unions officials.

At the meeting, the unions agreed to make efforts to halt the violence, despite claiming that they were in no way responsible for it, and the provincial government agreed to facilitate the release of four protesters who were arrested on December 17 and 18.

Mr. Phalla said that Tithsothy Borachhat, another investigating judge, had yet to “make a decision” about whether to release them.

The judge’s inaction, coupled with the new arrests, has riled the unions.

“That agreement is useless. The four have not been released and they also arrested six truck drivers,” said Chheng Choan, head of the Independent Labor Union of Cam­bodia, which claims 2,000 members inside the Manhattan SEZ.

“The agreement has been violated,” he said.

Mr. Choan refused to say whether the perceived breach would lead workers to once again leave their factories and resume protests.

Prom Rina, the wife of Keo Pros, one of the jailed truck drivers, said yesterday that she did not believe that her husband participated in the protests or riots that managers say have cost the factories millions of dollars.

“My husband has been driving the trucks transporting the workers for four years and never had such a problem,” she said. “He just drives them to work; he was not involved.”

Ros Phalrith, the provincial government’s chief of administration, said that factories in the two SEZs were operating at near capacity on Friday, but declined to comment on the arrests.

“There was only one facility in the Manhattan zone where workers came in the morning and left in the afternoon because they are still negotiating work conditions with the factory,” he said.

Rex Lee, an administrator at the Manhattan SEZ, said factory managers would not pay their workers for the strike days, unless a particular factory had ordered them to leave the premises.

He said the Manhattan SEZ was running at about 90 percent capacity on Friday—about normal -—but that he worried about fu­ture disturbances by protesters who have sporadically swept through the compound throwing rocks at factories and inciting more workers to join them since last Wednesday.

“I and the factory owners can see that this issue is not simple. We are getting more information all the time,” Mr. Lee said.

“Until now, we have received no clear demands from them [workers]. In the past, protests and strikes have not been like that. What do they want? Is it just conflict? So far, it has been trouble and conflict but no clear demands,” he added.

“We still worry about Monday. Some of those violent guys, maybe they think if there is a rest for two days, all the police will go home, go back to their normal jobs, and then they can start again.”

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