Traffic outside the Terratex Knitting and Garment International Factory Ltd on National Route 2 flowed freely Sunday while 34 alleged participants in Friday’s bloody conflict found themselves confined to jail.
Chak Angre Krom commune’s police chief, Chea Sokhaiy, said police arrested nine people Saturday and one more on Sunday in connection with a six-day strike at Terratex that turned into the bloodiest public demonstration in recent history, leaving one police officer and one worker dead in Friday’s clash between heavily armed police and stone-throwing workers.
Government officials expressed remorse over the clash throughout the weekend while trading theories about how a simple labor dispute turned deadly less than a week before the Asean Regional Forum is due to begin with US Secretary of State Colin Powell scheduled to be in attendance.
“I would like to condemn all the violent acts and appeal to the government to take action leading to the arrest of the offenders for punishment,” Funcinpec President Prince Norodom Ranariddh said in a statement Saturday.
Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs spokesman Ker Soksidney said Sunday that National Independent Federation Textile Union of Cambodia President Morm Nhim, who has been closely linked to CPP Senate presidential adviser Chea Soeurn, was not responsible for the violence despite organizing workers and threatening on Wednesday to push down the factory gate, a statement that she later denied making.
Ker Soksidney said Sam Rainsy or Funcinpec planned the clash and said proof of an anti-government group’s guilt would be revealed today.
“Some new group came in to make trouble before Election Day and the Asean meeting. They want to do something to show that Cambodia has trouble,” he said.
Sam Rainsy Party parliamentarian Son Chhay agreed that a separate group of troublemakers took the stage, but adamantly denied that his party organized them.
“This was likely part of the CPP plan to create events to present some kind of security image before Asean,” Son Chhay said.
Chhorn Sokha, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Union, said Morm Nhim is backed by Chea Soeurn, who runs Meanchey district’s Tack Fat Garment (Cambodia) Ltd factory in addition to his Senate duties.
Morm Nhim denied being affiliated with the CPP and said she contacts Chea Soeurn only to solve problems within his factory.
Son Chhay said pro-government groups may have caused trouble for one of two reasons: To create enough political instability to deter Powell from meeting with Sam Rainsy during his visit or to project an image of supreme control.
Minister of Women’s Affairs Mu Sochua scoffed at the idea that an anti-government group had the power or protection to organize a strike of this magnitude.
“It’s no anti-government union to blow it up to this level,” she said.
Strikes organized by the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia—a Sam Rainsy Party sympathizer—and CCAWDU are often stopped or disrupted by the Pagoda Boys, a self-proclaimed pro-CPP group working to protect the interests of the government.
The Terratex crackdown is the latest articulation of the government’s ban on peaceful protests, which began after Jan 29, when a public outcry of anger erupted into the violent but not deadly anti-Thai riots.
US experts have provided anti-terrorism training and have been coordinating security plans with the Ministry of Interior’s Bodyguard Department. Cambodian officials have said it is a priority to prevent a terrorist attack, as well as street demonstrations, during the weeklong Asean meetings that begin today.
Mu Sochua agreed that the Asean meetings should be protected by maximum security, but expressed concern that the tools of intervention—batons and guns—would be used after the meeting, during the election campaign and after the elections take place.
“You have to be sure all these tools that empower the force is not a power that can be abused,” she said.
The deaths of worker Mao Vuthy, 30, and municipal police officer Sok Sovannara, 42, could have been avoided, Mu Sochua said, had the Labor Ministry done its job and tended to the workers’ seemingly legitimate demands for higher wages and overtime pay.
“If it is a state ruled by law, then use the law. How much blood do we have to lose over this?” she said.
Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith admitted that the government waited too long to react to the conflict, attributing the slow response to politicians’ harried campaign schedules.
Phnom Penh Governor Kep Chuktema visited the factory Saturday afternoon and ordered the truckloads of police who had been guarding the site to move out. “The security is better now, and we have negotiated with the factory owner and have demanded what the workers wanted,” he said Sunday.
Terratex manager Jimmy Sum and Morm Nhim agreed to 16 bargaining points on Saturday and issued a joint statement Sunday urging workers to return to work today, Morm Nhim said.
The body of Mao Vuthy, who was known at the factory as Yoeum Ry, was cremated early Sunday morning in Kompong Russei commune, Pea Reang district, Prey Veng province, said Mao Vuthy’s cousin, Sao Pich, 33.
Yim Piseth, 25, was arrested Sunday after claiming to be the brother of Mao Vuthy, Chea Sokhaiy said.
(Reporting by Kate Woodsome, Saing Soenthrith, Kuch Naren and Kim Chan)