At least one police officer and one factory worker were killed Friday, when heavily armed riot squads and hundreds of stone-throwing garment factory strikers clashed in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district. Eighteen other officers were injured and at least two workers in critical condition, police, court, hospital and union officials said. At least two more workers received minor injuries.
The street battle left a kilometer-long stretch of road strewn with rubble, spent AK-47 shells and abandoned sandals, as strikers fled gunfire.
The deaths mark the bloodiest confrontation between striking workers and police in recent history and took place amid last-minute preparation for next week’s Asean Regional Forum and ministerial meetings.
The violence erupted at the Terratex Knitting and Garment International Factory, Ltd, around mid-day as some 300 workers demonstrated outside the Chak Angre Leu commune factory, which produces clothes for high-profile US company Gap Inc.
Friday was the fourth day of protests—attempts to reinstate a fired union member and gain higher salaries and overtime pay.
Armored, helmeted riot police carrying shields beat back demonstrators with wooden batons and rubber truncheons, while the strikers showered the officers with stones and bricks. Officers with assault rifles fired shots into the air and at the ground, witnesses said.
Striker Mao Vuthy, 30, who was known at the Terratex factory as Yoeum Ry, was killed. Witnesses next to him said he had been shot by police.
Relatives placed the dead man’s body on a low table in the middle of the road in front of the factory. Mao Vuthy, whose shirt had been removed, had a round, single-entry wound in his chest.
“I saw police shoot my brother dead,” said relative Mao Piseth.
Women wailed and young men threw stones from side streets as two police officers placed the corpse into an ambulance, after the drivers balked amid demands from the hysterical crowd.
Mao Vuthy’s body was taken to the Preah Monivong Hospital, used to treat police officers, where an autopsy revealed a bullet lodged in the spine.
Mao Vuthy’s relatives planned to take his body to Prey Veng province for cremation Saturday, said Minister of Women’s Affairs Mu Sochua, who visited the hospital late Friday.
A municipal police officer identified as Sok Sovannara, 42, died of head injuries at the same hospital, Dr Som Neang said.
Sok Sovannara’s fellow officer, Long Sao, said the officer had fallen during the melee, lost his helmet, and been bludgeoned by a stone-wielding demonstrator.
“There was no violence until the police came and attacked us and beat us brutally,” a 25-year-old striking factory worker said earlier Friday, refusing to give her name for fear she would be fingered later for prosecution.
“That is why we retaliated and threw stones and wood and some protesters turned to attack the factory,” she said.
First Deputy Municipal Police Chief Muong Khim declined to comment on claims by the strikers that police had provoked the violence and had used excessive force.
The dispatched police force included hundreds of national military police reinforcing hundreds more intervention police.
Producing a mini-sledge hammer allegedly confiscated from the protesters, Muong Khim and Municipal Police Chief Suong Chheangly said the strikers ap-peared to have been prepared for a confrontation with police.
“Police did not use tear gas, but the protesters used stones to make the police bleed badly,” Muong Khim said.
A guard at the Terratex factory said the protesters attacked the factory and bashed through a brick wall to gain entry and set fire to a front office.
“Luckily the factory had a water hose otherwise the fire would have spread,” the guard said.
Terratex Manager Jimmy Sum could not be contacted for comment throughout Friday.
Morm Nhim, president of the National Independent Federation Textile Union of Cambodia, who has lead the garment protest at the factory, denied on Friday that she had organized strikers to fight the police.
But as Morm Nhim rallied workers in earlier protests on Wednesday, she threatened to push down the factory’s gate if union demands were not met.
The union president demanded that factory management take responsibility for the deaths as they were unwilling to negotiate and find a solution to their workers’ complaints.
Morm Nhim said late Friday she had gone into hiding for fear of arrest by police.
(Reporting by Phann Ana, Kevin Doyle, Lor Chandara and Kate Woodsome)