Within a matter of days, a strike that began on Christmas day in 2013 spread across the country and shut down Cambodia’s largest export industry. Hundreds of thousands of garment factory workers stopped work as unions demanded an increase of the monthly minimum wage to $160.
Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC), quickly called for action to restore investor confidence in the $5-billion-a-year industry.
“The government is the only organization, the only body that can resolve this problem,” Mr. Loo said on December 27 as the strikes were escalating.
“The problem we are referring to is, number one, the hooliganism, and, number two, the demonstrations.”
On January 3, a year ago this Saturday, the government deployed hundreds of military police armed with AK-47 assault rifles to the heart of the protests on Phnom Penh’s largely industrial Veng Sreng Street.
In just a few hours, the forces had killed five workers and injured more than 40 others, most struck by bullets or severely beaten.
Speaking from hospital beds around Phnom Penh in the ensuing days, the surviving victims said that after the military police arrived they began firing their weapons in the air, before aiming directly at workers who refused to flee the area.
Local rights groups identified Kim Phalin, 29; Yann Rithy, 26; Sreng Vibol, 22; Ouk Pheak, 23; and Sam Ravy, 26, as the five killed. Unions corroborated the figure, despite persistent rumors that more were slain.
“I saw 10 of them put up a wall of riot shields, and then I saw a gun poke through and it shot at me,” said Hem Ouen, 23, on January 7 as he recovered from a bullet wound at the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital.
“If you didn’t run away, they would just pick you out and shoot you,” Mr. Ouen recalled, admitting he had been throwing rocks at the military police when he was shot.
Others threw crude Molotov cocktails and set fire to piles of tires. Yet the strike was easily suppressed by the government’s armed forces, and by that afternoon the streets were locked down.
“Everyone is too afraid to strike now so no one ever considers it, even though it’s only strikes that can find a solution for us,” said Chhiv Phanith, a garment worker whose husband Sam Ravy was one of the five killed on January 3, speaking on Veng Sreng Street this week.
Ms. Phanith said her husband spoke both English and Chinese and had a well-paid middle-management job at a Veng Sreng factory, joining the street strikes in solidarity with the workers who he felt were underpaid.
“My husband’s death was meaningless because he sacrificed his life for the workers but no one has come to fight for justice for him,” said Ms. Phanith, who last month returned to work at a factory after a year at her family home in Kompong Speu province, where she was unable to provide for her infant son.
The nationwide strike was called off soon after the shootings, which occurred on a Friday, with workers beginning to return to factories the next Monday, having secured an increase in their basic salaries to just $100.
For the factories, starved of at least a week of lucrative production, the savage killings were an unsavory—but ultimately helpful —catalyst to return to business as normal.
“GMAC condemns the use of violence, period,” Mr. Loo said the day after the shootings, qualifying that police nevertheless “absolutely” had the right to shoot.
“After they were throwing rocks and stones and stuff, how do you expect them to respond?”
It was the line that most in both government and the industry would adopt.
“The intervention of police to secure law and order is appropriate,” GMAC chairman Van Sou Ieng said at a press conference on January 8. “There must [be] collateral damage, OK, so we do have to expect that.”
Commerce Minister Sun Chanthol told representatives of H&M, Gap and Puma, some of Cambodia’s biggest garment buyers, at a meeting in Phnom Penh on February 19 that the action was necessary for the industry.
“Does the country have the responsibility to protect your investments if you have investments in the country?” Mr. Chanthol asked rhetorically.
“Yes, the Cambodian government has the responsibility to protect the investors in the country, to protect the citizens of the country,” he said.
Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government would never meaningfully investigate the deaths of the five workers, appointing Interior Minister Sar Kheng to head a committee to “study” the killings.
On March 28, the committee released a report blaming the deaths on opposition leader Sam Rainsy and his efforts to combine the strikes with his party’s mass protests against Mr. Hun Sen’s administration.
“The illegal demonstrations led by the Cambodia National Rescue Party was a premeditated, provocative act intended to topple the legal government by inciting anarchy, violence and clashes with competent authorities, resulting in deaths and injured forces and civilians and a number of people arrested,” the report said.
National Military Police spokesman Kheng Tito said on Friday that the events of a year ago were not the fault of the heavily-armed military police deployed to the protest, which he said became violent and unruly.
“The authorities are not responsible for this,” Brigadier General Tito said.
“They know when to use their weapons,” he said of his forces. “[The strikers] did not listen, and threatened the authorities with rocks and sticks, so it is normal that the authorities responded to protect the people.”
Speaking on Thursday from the small room she shares on Veng Sreng Street with five other workers, Chhiv Sarun, whose husband Yann Rithy was also shot dead last year, said she never expected the government to do anything.
“In Cambodia, there’s no justice. If there was justice—it’s been one year already—the government should have found information or sent someone to my family after he died,” she said.
“If it involves the government, which controls everything, they will not investigate,” said Ms. Sarun, who is now raising a young son on her own.
Hak Samnang, 25, the wife of Kim Phaleap, another of the workers killed, said the lack of any similarly large strikes since the January 3 shootings speaks to the success of the government’s strike-breaking strategy.
“The government killed them to break the spirit of the workers…. Now the workers are too afraid and concerned about their safety,” she said.
“The Khmer Rouge would kill people in secret, but today’s government kills workers in the bright light of day in the middle of the city, and only because they were demanding a better living.”
© 2015, All rights reserved.