As hundreds of riot police conducted protest suppression drills in Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park on Monday morning, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s mansion in the center of the city was the focal point of a demonstration by some 2,000 garment factory workers.
Municipal police, along with 16 fire trucks equipped with water cannons, were deployed to Freedom Park, the only space in the city set aside for peaceful demonstrations, before 7:30 a.m., when the Cambodian Grassroots Cross Sector Network had planned to begin a small rally in the park calling for government accountability.
At about 8 a.m., with hundreds of police officers in body armor and shields swinging batons in mock confrontation scenarios, word of protesters descending on the prime minister’s residence reached municipal police chief Chuon Sovann, who was overseeing the anti-riot exercises at Freedom Park.
“I order you to arrest these gang leaders coming from SL Garment Factory,” Mr. Sovann shouted to his nearby deputies, immediately deploying several trucks filled with riot police, which raced down Norodom Boulevard to confront the protesters, who were almost at the gates of Mr. Hun Sen’s city home.
Workers from the SL Garment Factory—which produces clothing for U.S.-brand Gap and Sweden’s H&M—have been striking for nearly three months. On September 27, more than 2,000 workers attempted to march to Mr. Hun Sen’s residence, but were stopped by hundreds of military police.
As the riot police arrived at the scene of the protest, hundreds of SL Garment Factory workers, many of them carrying framed photographs of the prime minister and his wife, Bun Rany, came within several meters of the wall surrounding Mr. Hun Sen’s villa.
When a force of some 200 police officers finally deployed, they used their riot shields to push the garment workers toward the gardens in front of the prime minister’s house. Some protesters resisted, prompting the police to use wooden and plastic batons to beat them, sparking a panicked sprint by the protesters across the gardens and toward the memorial statue of the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk.
The police gave chase, clubbing protesters from behind and kicking those who fell. A handful of demonstrators retaliated by lobbing half-empty water bottles and flip-flops at the pursuing police officers.
“The police are very cruel. They treat us workers like animals,” said Samrith Srey Touch, 32, who suffered baton blows to her elbow and thigh.
“We just came to find a solution from Samdech Hun Sen. We aren’t even opposition [party] supporters,” said Huor Srey Den, 35, who, along with thousands of fellow workers at the SL factory in Meanchey district have been for months demanding the firm provide them with a daily food stipend, the reinstatement of fired union leaders and the removal of an unpopular adviser to the factory’s owners.
With the protesters and police in a standoff in the garden near the Norodom Sihanouk statue, Phnom Penh governor Pa Socheatvong arrived at around 9 a.m.
“I asked all the workers to move to Wat Botum, and asked representatives of the factory workers to meet with myself and Labor Minister Ith Samheng,” Mr. Socheatvong told reporters.
Although the garment workers refused to move to nearby Wat Botum, Ath Thorn, director of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union (CCAWDU), who organized the demonstration, accepted the governor’s offer, and the two departed the park at about 10 a.m. for a private discussion.
“The meeting is not finished,” Mr. Thorn said following a three-hour meeting with the governor.
“We will continue to [discuss the factory workers’ demands] at the Labor Ministry tomorrow.”
The fact the protesters got closer to Mr. Hun Sen’s town villa than they have in years was no accident.
“We had a new strategy that was successful,” said Siang Yot, a legal officer for CCAWDU.
“Workers woke up early, like 4 or 5 a.m., then arrived separately—by bicycle, tuk-tuk and moto—at Wat Botum,” before marching to the prime minister’s residence, Mr. Yot said.
While the protesters were gathering at Wat Botum, the Cambodia Grassroots People’s Assembly, which had its request to demonstrate in Freedom Park rejected, began their demonstration in the gardens east of the Naga Bridge on Norodom Boulevard, and next to a bust of Mahatma Gandhi. About 400 people from various community organizations and labor groups across the country came together at the assembly to call on both the ruling CPP and opposition CNRP to meet their pre-election campaign promises and solve long-running land and labor issues in their constituencies.
Within a half-hour of the assembly convening, about 40 riot police made their way from their drill in Freedom Park and began to rip signs, flags and banners from the hands of demonstrators. Ignoring the riot police’s rough tactics, the leaders of the rally urged the gathered demonstrators to resist by sitting down, assuring them that any violence by the police would be witnessed by journalists and human rights observers present.
Some of the more zealous officers overturned a wooden stage used by the organizers, tossed it off to the side and pushed forward a few meters into the crowd. But after a tense few minutes of pushing and negotiating, the police decided against trying to forcibly move the mostly female protesters, who had begun singing. The officers then spent the next two hours apparently relieved to be lying under the shade of trees surrounding the gardens and protesters, sweating in their full riot gear, smoking cigarettes.
Daun Penh district deputy police chief Lim Hong denied that the police had been unnecessarily aggressive toward the assembly participants.
“We did not use any violence against those people. We just pushed them into the park to open the way for traffic because they were standing on the road,” he said.
In fact, the assembly participants were not on the road and the riot police officers had to walk into the gardens in order to engage the demonstrators and take their banners and stage.
Ly Pisey, an organizer with the Cambodia Grassroots Cross Sector Network, said that if the aggression from police was meant to dissuade the network from organizing further demonstrations, it had not worked.
“It’s just a strategy to scare the communities, but unfortunately [for them] we understand that this is not new [behavior by authorities] and will hold on to our positions and values,” she said by telephone after the assembly disbanded.
“We had a very difficult choice to make—physically fight to deliver our statement or protect the safety of the people and remain true to our active nonviolent stance. This is not a choice we should have to make in a democratic country,” Kun Sothary, a member of the grassroots network, said in a statement released Monday afternoon.
With the opposition party set to begin a three-day protest at Freedom Park on Wednesday, senior CNRP lawmaker-elect Mu Sochua decried the police’s occupation of the city’s public space for protests, but said it would not deter her party from pushing ahead with another round of mass demonstrations.
“What is the purpose of Freedom Park?” Ms. Sochua asked.
“If that show of force was meant to threaten and intimidate us from demonstrations on the 23rd, it was misplaced and was totally illegal. And it goes against what people have been talking about, which is change,” she said.
Lieutenant General Kirth Chantharith, spokesman for the National Police, said that riot police, who have previously used Olympic Stadium for their crowd control exercises, had moved their drills to Freedom Park due to last minute logistical problems.
He admitted that police had been caught off guard by the protests at Mr. Hun Sen’s residence.
“We didn’t know [that striking workers were approaching his house],” Lt. Gen. Chantharith said, adding that more riot police would be needed in the days and years ahead.
“The number of the riot police officers is not enough for present situation, so…we need more police officers…because now there are many, many demonstrations.”
(Additional reporting by Ben Woods and Colin Meyn)