The South Korean Embassy on Wednesday denied a news report that it had lobbied Cambodian military authorities to “crack down on protesters” in a bid to shield Korean investments in the garment industry, prior to Friday’s killing of five protesters and the wounding of more than 40 others by military police officers.
A story published late Tuesday by the U.S.-based GlobalPost news service cited a statement by the South Korean Embassy—posted online in Korean—in which embassy staff allegedly said that they had asked the Cambodian military to “act swiftly” in protecting factories owned by their citizens.
According to GlobalPost, in the statement on Monday, “the South Korean Embassy took credit for convincing the Cambodian government to ‘understand the seriousness of this situation and act swiftly.’ It cited high-level lobbying over the past two weeks as contribution to the ‘success’ of protecting business interests.”
“As a practical measure, military forces and police have been cooperating closely with us to protect Korean companies since we visited the capital defense command headquarters with Korean businessmen to tell them about the situation,” GlobalPost wrote, quoting from the document.
“[A]s a result, to prevent any arson attempt or looting, military forces are directly guarding only Korean companies among many factories in the Canadia complex,” reads the statement, which was posted on an official Facebook page of the embassy.
GlobalPost added that South Korean Embassy staff had pushed their calls during meetings with Om Yentieng, chairman of the Human Rights Committee; Ouch Borith, secretary of state at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; and other officials.
A South Korean Embassy official on Wednesday said that they had simply done their duty by asking government officials to protect South Korean businesses, but that military action or violence against protesters had never been suggested.
“We received some reports from the Korean business community about possible labor unrests and their concern, so as a normal diplomatic function, we forward the concerns to Cambodian authorities….” Lee Hyunt-jong, minister counselor at the South Korean Embassy, said Wednesday.
“We request the Cambodian authorities to pay attention to the difficulties faced by Korean investors because of the labor unrest,” he said.
He added that on December 27, embassy staff had met with high-ranking officials, but that no action against garment workers was discussed.
Letters were sent to Prime Minister Hun Sen, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as opposition leader Sam Rainsy, and included a general request to protect South Korean businesses, he added.
“We have made a general request, but never asked to take specific action. So we did not request military intervention,” he said, adding that the embassy statement was misinterpreted.
“We only made one contact [with Cambodian military] last Saturday, after the crackdown, because we have some Korean companies in Canadia [Industrial] Park and they were really concerned about the situation,” Mr. Lee said.
Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, claimed that the government had not given special treatment to anyone in terms of security.
“We understand that members of foreign embassies in Cambodia made requests to protect their investment and their private property. The law prohibits us to do that,” he said, adding that all foreign investors were being treated equally.
However, one factory, the South Korean-owned Yakjin garment factory, did receive special treatment last Thursday when some 150 troops from the elite 911 paratrooper brigade deployed at the gates to the plant in Phnom Penh’s Pur Senchey district.
Garment factory workers, union leaders and other activists were protesting outside Yakjin when the paratroopers’ baton-charged the crowd following a stone-throwing incident. The troops, armed with iron bars, batons, slingshots and whips fashioned from plastic pipe, brutally beat strikers, union leaders and journalists, detaining five monks and 10 others.
A picture taken of a 911 paratrooper at the scene of the violence clearly shows him wearing a South-Korean flag as an arm patch on his uniform. Such insignia often denotes when a Cambodian soldier has received training overseas.
The violence meted out by the paratroopers at Yakjin marked the first such incident of its kind over the week that the garment workers had been on strike, and was the first time that battlefield troops had been deployed on the streets of Phnom Penh to quell the strike.
Why the Yakjin factory received special protection from an elite unit of the military has yet to be explained by the government.
Mr. Siphan claimed Wednesday that the paratroopers came in support of the police, but eyewitnesses, including Cambodia Daily journalists, said the 911 soldiers were the only force deployed at the factory and there were no police in the vicinity of the plant before or after the violence by the troops.
(Additional reporting by Hul Reaksmey)
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