Human rights, government, labor union and garment manufacturing officials on Tuesday blamed unidentified extremists for Friday’s deadly conflict between police and striking garment factory workers while another union accused the government of creating a smear campaign to suppress political activism.
Representatives from the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, the Cambodian Human Rights Committee, the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia and the National Independent Federation Textile Union of Cambodia said they did not know who infiltrated the Niftuc strike for fair working conditions but were confident that “extremists and opportunists” had used the demonstration for political gain.
“The incident broke out when…extremists appeared and hid among the protesters, instigating the workers to turn the peaceful protest violent in order to gain the political interest for their parties,” the ministry statement said.
A weeklong strike that began June 9 turned violent on Friday when some 300 demonstrators clashed with more than 200 armed riot police outside the Terratex Knitting and Garment International Factory Ltd in Chak Angre Krom commune, Meanchey district. Workers flung stones and bricks, while police peppered the crowd with bullets.
At least nine strikers were hospitalized, according to human rights group Licadho. Twenty-four police were injured, according to the Interior Ministry. One worker and one police officer were killed.
Morm Nhim, who on June 11 threatened to storm the factory gate if her demands were not met by factory management, said she believed that either the factory’s legal adviser, David Chanaiwa, or Free Trade Union of the Kingdom of Cambodia President Chea Vichea organized the extremists.
The director of the US State Department’s Office of International Labor Affairs, George White, noted concerns in May that the Cambodian courts are being used to intimidate workers and break union activities. Several unions complained to White that Chanaiwa has employed this method. Chanaiwa denies the charge.
Cambodian Bar Association President Ky Tech said Tuesday that Chanaiwa likely would be disbarred for “unforgivable acts.”
Chanaiwa said Tuesday that he would continue to offer legal services to his clients. “As long as [factory managers] think I am valuable to them, I will continue to give advice because I have done nothing wrong,” he said.
Morm Nhim also raised suspicions Tuesday about Chea Vichea’s role in the violence, although she said Chea Vichea had urged her early last week not to strike. She asked why Chea Vichea and Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association President Rong Chhun placed flowers in front of the factory for the deceased worker if they were not culpable of instigating the violence that killed him. She raised the same questions earlier this week on pro-CPP Bayon TV.
The Free Trade Union and CITA are key members of the Cambodian Watchdog Council, a coalition of unions that called for Prime Minister Hun Sen’s resignation following the Jan 29 anti-Thai riots. However, the group abandoned its plan to strike after hundreds of members of the pro-government Pagoda Boys promised to crush the demonstration.
The Free Trade Union on Tuesday called Morm Nhim’s repeated implication of Chea Vichea’s guilt part of a larger slander campaign designed to crack down on political dissidence. “The Niftuc-organized strike is being used in a plot to crush opposition before the July elections,” a Free Trade Union statement said.
Meanchey district Cabinet Chief Huy Sarin questioned Chea Vichea on Monday about his involvement in Friday’s events and said he would not investigate Morm Nhim because other officials already had questioned her. Morm Nhim said she has never been questioned by authorities.
The Free Trade Union further distanced itself from the protest, noting that the pro-CPP Cambodian Union Federation, which has standing at Terratex, and the Pagoda Boys—usually present at Free Trade Union strikes—were notably absent Friday.
Approximately 70 percent of Terratex’s 4,000 workers reported to duty Tuesday, factory manager Jimmy Sum said. He said the factory’s relationship with its high-profile US clothing buyer Gap Inc was in question after Friday’s violence.