Riot police were recently deployed in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh to break up anti-government protests. The crackdowns are part of an escalating standoff between officials and those calling for democratic reform.
The January 26 demonstration, announced by nine unions and associations, was in defiance of a government ban on rallies and marches imposed after a deadly confrontation between protesters and police in early January. The organizers, who have been demanding higher wages for garment workers and the release of 23 people detained by authorities, were expecting up to 10,000 demonstrators at Freedom Park, a free-speech area in the capital Phnom Penh.
But early that morning, the park was eerily silent, almost empty but for journalists, a few human rights observers, and a large contingent of black-helmeted security forces, lined up listening to orders from a commander.
However, the calm didn’t last long. The security forces broke formation and spread out, several heading toward the human rights monitors, ordering them to leave the area. As a verbal confrontation began, the forces began forcing people out of the square, along a side street, finally pushing them beyond metal barricades set up on side streets.
As other protesters arrived and found the way to the park blocked, some began shouting at the police, accusing them of killing Cambodians and harming their own country. “I am so fed up and angry with this government,” said Heng Chunly, a nurse. “I came here to see justice done since I am sick of all the injustice in Cambodia.”
Political tension has been on the rise since the middle of last year, when Cambodia held elections, widely considered flawed, which saw long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen and his CPP party retain their grip on the country.
However, the opposition CNRP made strong gains and claims that it actually won the vote. The dispute set off political deadlock, with the opposition refusing to take its seats in parliament and calling for new elections. While it appeared for a while that Prime Minister Hun Sen, in power for almost three decades, had been willing to tolerate some level of dissent, lately it appears that his government has had enough.
In late December, garment workers began protesting, demanding an increase in their basic monthly wage to 160 USD. The clashes escalated and on Jan. 3 riot police shot and killed at least three workers; some groups say five died. In addition, 23 people were taken into custody, and remain in detention today.
‘A living hell’
On Sunday, outside the barricades, Heang Chenda looked on helplessly. The 37-year-old mother of three works in a Phnom Penh garment factory and had come to demonstrate for more money. She works six days a week, usually more than 10 hours a day, and if she’s lucky, takes home 140 USD a month.
“I cannot live on what I earn,” she said. “Daily life is too expensive.”
Behind her, scuffles occasionally break out between protesters and security forces, and several older women are pushed to the ground by the black-clad men.
“We’ve seen how the security forces treat us badly, even hurt us,” she said. “But I am fearless today. Even though I am alive, I feel like I’m in a living hell. So I will protest no matter what happens to me today.”
Show of force
After a while, the police moved back, and several protesters and journalists moved further into the park. But by then, the full contingent of military and riot police had arrived, numbering in the hundreds, driving past on motorcycles and in the backs of trucks, holding shields and batons.
Protesters continued to shout, laying out a litany of complaints as they were again pushed out of the free-speech area. Sun Thun, a teacher from Kampong Thom province, had made the long journey to the capital. He said he had come to protest government complicity in the clear-cutting of the country’s forests, the lack of jobs that forced his neighbors to migrate to Thailand, a corrupt court system, and few educational opportunities for the poor.
“They say Cambodia is a democracy, but it is not,” he said, comparing the current situation to the murderous Khmer Rouge era of the 1970s. “During the Pol Pot regime, the government was very cruel and killed people. It is the same today.”
According to Far Saly, president of the National Trade Union Coalition, the government sent out district police to patrol near garment factories, preventing people from coming to the city center.
The government said it banned the gathering to protect “social order,” and that the right to assembly would be reinstated once the country “returns to normalcy.”
However, union leaders pointed out that freedom of assembly is guaranteed in Cambodia’s 1993 constitution, and that the ban is an unacceptable infringement upon basic rights.
“The government is very nervous about the unions’ force and the voice of the people,” said Sokny Say, general secretary of the Free Trade Union of Workers, one of the protest organizers. “The more [the government] is ready to crack down on us, the more it shows that they are scared.”
According to human rights monitors, at least 10 people were injured during Sunday’s clashes between hundreds of demonstrators, who eventually turned out, and security troops. On Monday, riot control police again hit the streets, breaking up a protest organized by a leading independent broadcaster and making arrests. The violence is becoming a near-daily event.
But according to some observers, the current government strategy could backfire. As the tensions mount, past efforts at stopping protests have further turned up the heat on what has become a “pressure cooker of anger.” Chan Soveth of the rights group ADHOC says Cambodians are getting angrier in the wake of the crackdowns.
“The country is controlled by the armed forces and the rights of the people are being curtailed,” he said. “If this continues, we could see people starting to use violence against the authorities.”