— Ate Hoekstra (@HoekstraAte) January 3, 2014
Tens of thousands of garment workers have been on strike since the last week of December after the government refused the demand of unions to raise the monthly minimum wage to $160. The current minimum wage is only $80 dollars and the labor council is only willing to grant a $15 dollar hike in basic pay. As protests intensified, the government agreed to raise the minimum wage by another $5.
But workers have been firm in asserting their $160 minimum wage demand. The garment sector is a $5 billion dollar export industry in Cambodia which employs more than 600,000 workers. Many of the leading clothing brands in the world get their supply from Cambodia, which has one of the lowest minimum wage rates in the Asia-Pacific.
John Vink reported what he saw on the scene of the clash:
At least 3 people were shot dead and several were severely injured by hundreds of bullets fired by armed forces during a brutal crackdown in the morning of January 3rd on barricades set up by thousands of striking workers on Veng Sren road, in the industrial area of Phnom Penh. Several others were arrested and subsequently tasered, beaten up or beaten unconscious
— Cambodia Guide (@camboguide) January 3, 2014
Tension rose yesterday when police arrested several protesters, including monks and human rights activists. In response, protesters set-up road blockades which the police tried to clear in the morning. Witnesses claimed that police used live ammunition in dispersing the protest.
military police occupy Veng Sreng street. At least four protestors were arrested and one was seen bleeding pic.twitter.com/H59wkhPdsI
— Vannarin Neou (@vannarinneou) January 3, 2014
Licadho described the crackdown as the “worst state violence against civilians to hit Cambodia in fifteen years.” The human rights group is demanding that
…security forces must now put an immediate end to the use of live ammunition against civilians and ensure that all those injured are safely transported to hospital without delay
Ou Virak of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights thinks that the police acted violently to protect the interest of big business:
While many of the political demonstrations which have taken place over the last few months have been met with restraint from the security forces, there is an increasingly clear link between the excessive use of force by security forces and the protection of the big business of Cambodia. Of the 25 cases where we noted excessive use of force, 21 were related to strikes by garment workers or protests over land.
Frontline barricade pic.twitter.com/Z9jZHh3FpX
— Kevin Doyle (@doyle_kevin) January 3, 2014
Ekreach Clinic was destroyed by rioters after its rejected to cure some victims in a clash at Canadia Park, Jan 3. pic.twitter.com/UBq0o6D62o
— Sopheak SREY (@sopheaksrey) January 3, 2014
Workers got the support of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party which vowed to raise wages by $160 if it is able to assume power in the country.
The opposition has been holding daily protests at the Phnom Penh Freedom Park to press for the ouster of the incumbent government which has been accused of manipulating this year’s election results. Prime Minister Hun Sen has been in power in the past three decades although his party lost many seats in the recent parliamentary polls. The opposition has boycotted the parliament sessions even though it has 55 seats.
Many workers have joined the opposition rally which could further undermine the Hun Sen administration. Labor unions have vowed to continue the protests until their demand is granted by the government.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy announced their intention to file charges against the government in relation to the bloody crackdown of the strike:
We will lodge a complaint to the ICC so that those criminals in power who today ordered soldiers to open fire on workers, be prosecuted.
For its part, the government accused the opposition of provoking the violence to get public sympathy.
The strike of garment workers and the opposition rally produced the biggest ever street demonstration in Cambodia in recent decades. After today’s violence, the political crisis in Cambodia is expected to worsen.
*Thumbnail used is from Facebook page of CNRP, Cambodia's opposition party.