Monthly Archives: January 2014

Cambodian Crossroads

After a long period of intense political protest, a disquieting calm has fallen over Cambodia following the violent crackdown on protestors in the early days of 2014. Culminating in the arrest of twenty-three people and the death of at least four, the aggressive police and military suppression of demonstrations in support of striking garment factory workers received widespread international media attention. Those now infamous days were not isolated incidents, however, but simply the most publicized of a series of events that have dominated the recent Cambodian political climate.

My colleagues at Ruom Collective and I were present at all of the major moments as this story developed, and these images along with the accompanying article I wrote, are part of our effort to tell the larger narrative. Rather than repost my photos alone, I’ve included images from all three of the Collective’s photographers. 

• CNRP MOBILIZES

Though the Cambodian National Rescue Party had been regularly protesting the contentious 2013 election results, on December 15th they dramatically increased their efforts to put pressure on the ruling Cambodian People’s Party by calling for daily demonstrations. As reported by Radio Free Asia, opposition party co-leader Sam Rainsy implored his supporters to engage in a “non-violent attempt to bring about change based on democratic principles.”

Heeding Rainsy’s call, tens of thousands of anti-government demonstrators marched in the streets of Phnom Penh throughout the remaining days of December, in what the New York Times called “one of the biggest acts of defiance against the nearly three decades of rule by Cambodia’s authoritarian Prime Minister.” The largest of these marches stretched for miles down Monivong Boulevard, brining traffic on one of the capital’s main arteries to a standstill.

22 December, 2013 - Phnom Penh. Thousands of CNRP supporters take to the streets in Phnom Penh to ask Prime Minister Hun Sen to step down. © Luc Forsyth / Ruom

22 December, 2013 – Phnom Penh. Thousands of CNRP supporters take to the streets in Phnom Penh to ask Prime Minister Hun Sen to step down. © Luc Forsyth / Ruom

• THE GARMENT WORKER CONNECTION

During what would ultimately turn out to be the last week of these mass demonstrations, the Garment Workers Union of Cambodia encouraged their members to strike. A cornerstone of the national economy, the garment workers had been engaged in a long-term struggle for a doubling of their $80 monthly wage, which they asserted was not enough to cover their basic living expenses. Though not all workers engaged in the strike, thousands of those who did converged on the Ministry of Labour to await the government response.

After three days of waiting, the resolution was ultimately rejected, with the government stating that a $15 increase was the best that could be expected. The angry – though perhaps unsurprised – demonstrators then marched towards the Council of Ministers, but were stopped short by roadblocks. Police and protestors faced off across barbed wire barricades for several hours, but violence was averted as the protestors left peacefully with the daylight.

On the morning of January 2nd, garment workers took their strike to the factories themselves – defying a government order to cease demonstrations.

December 30, 2013 - Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Garment workers protest near the Council of Ministers. Workers are calling for a raise in the minimum wage to 160USD © Nicolas Axelrod / Ruom

December 30, 2013 – Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Garment workers protest near the Council of Ministers. Workers are calling for a raise in the minimum wage to 160USD © Nicolas Axelrod / Ruom

• THE CRACKDOWN

The Wall Street Journal noted that 2013 was the most strike-intensive year on record for Cambodia, yet no one seemed to expect that the morning’s protests in front of the Yak Jin and Canadia industrial complexes would be the catalyst moments for the most violent incidents in the country’s recent history.

Outside the Yak Jin factory complex, the garment workers and their supporters were met not by regular police forces, but by soldiers from the Indonesian-trained 911 Airborne Commando unit. Though the standoff initially seemed static, a water bottle thrown by an unidentified civilian triggered a swift and brutal reaction from the paramilitary force. With a combination of slingshot projectiles and viciously aimed baton strikes, the soldiers wounded around twenty of the protestors and arrested ten. Among the detained were human rights workers, union leaders, and Buddhist monks.

 

January 02 , 2014 - Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Special Forces soldiers from the 911 Airborne unit beat an observer from a non-profit organization after a stand off between the military and striking garment workers erupted into violence. © Luc Forsyth / Ruom

January 02 , 2014 – Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Special Forces soldiers from the 911 Airborne unit beat an observer from a non-profit organization after a stand off between the military and striking garment workers erupted into violence. © Luc Forsyth / Ruom

Across town, military police similarly dispersed strikers outside the Canadia garment factory. As soon as the authorities had left the scene, hundreds of garment worker supporters – mostly young men – occupied the area. As night fell, they fortified their position, starting a series of fires and erecting barricades against the inevitable police return.

It wasn’t until near midnight that hundreds of police stormed the area, only to find the streets eerily deserted. Behind a screen of acrid smoke from the street fires, the protestors had withdrawn to a nearby apartment building where they consolidated their strength. In a siege situation that lasted into the early hours of January 3rd, police bombarded the building with tear gas and repeatedly tried to assault the structure under the cover of their riot shields. The defenders hurled bottles and cinder blocks from the rooftop, injuring several officers. Seemingly admitting defeat, the police called off their attack at around 3 a.m., and returned to their staging area beside the Phnom Penh train station.

As the sun rose, the protestors returned to the barricades, tensely awaiting the government response. At around 9:30 a.m. the police and military arrived on the scene, but rather than their customary baton charge, they opened fire with pistols and assault rifles. The humanitarian organization Licadho would later be quoted by The Guardian, describing the events as “horrific”; their independent survey of local hospitals found that four had been killed and twenty-one had been wounded in the most violent incident in Cambodia since 1998.

03 January, 2014 - Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Protesters set barricades on fire during a demonstration calling for a raise in the minimum wage and calling for Prime Minister Hun Sen to step down. © Thomas Cristofoletti / Ruom 2014

03 January, 2014 – Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Protesters set barricades on fire during a demonstration calling for a raise in the minimum wage and calling for Prime Minister Hun Sen to step down. © Thomas Cristofoletti / Ruom 2014

03 January, 2014 - Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Wounded protesters lie unconscious on the floor after having been beaten by police during a demonstration calling for a raise in the minimum wage and calling for Prime Minister Hun Sen to step down. © Thomas Cristofoletti / Ruom

03 January, 2014 – Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Wounded protesters lie unconscious on the floor after having been beaten by police during a demonstration calling for a raise in the minimum wage and calling for Prime Minister Hun Sen to step down. © Thomas Cristofoletti / Ruom

January 04 , 2014 - Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Vacant homes in a factory workers housing complex after a crack down on protesting workers on January 03, 2014. Workers went home after several factories closed in the area, and military patrolled the streets. © Thomas Cristofoletti / Ruom

January 04 , 2014 – Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Vacant homes in a factory workers housing complex after a crack down on protesting workers on January 03, 2014. Workers went home after several factories closed in the area, and military patrolled the streets. © Thomas Cristofoletti / Ruom

January 19, 2014 - Phnom Penh, Cambodia. A garment worker injured during clashes with government forces on January 03, 2014 is taken to have his wounds seen by a doctor. © Nicolas Axelrod / Ruom

January 19, 2014 – Phnom Penh, Cambodia. A garment worker injured during clashes with government forces on January 03, 2014 is taken to have his wounds seen by a doctor. © Nicolas Axelrod / Ruom

• THE CLOSING OF FREEDOM PARK

The next day, seemingly intent on decisively stamping out future opposition, plain clothed CPP thugs armed with clubs, hatchets, and pieces of rebar rushed into Freedom Park. With the tacit approval of the police, who surrounded the park but did not actively participate, the un-uniformed government supporters destroyed the temporary facilities and stage that had been host to opposition rallies since October of 2013. The government issued a statement, banning all further protests indefinitely – an act in clear violation of the national constitution.

January 04, 2014 - Phnom Penh Cambodia. A group of hired workers dismantle structures at the camp set up by Cambodia National Rescue Party leaders at Freedom Park. The CNRP having been leading demonstrations in Phnom Penh since early December using Freedom Park as their base. © Thomas Cristofoletti / Ruom

January 04, 2014 – Phnom Penh Cambodia. A group of hired workers dismantle structures at the camp set up by Cambodia National Rescue Party leaders at Freedom Park. The CNRP having been leading demonstrations in Phnom Penh since early December using Freedom Park as their base. © Thomas Cristofoletti / Ruom

January 05, 2014 - Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Sam Rainsy, President and Kem Sokha, Vice President of the CNRP hold a prayer at their offices for the victims of the government crack down on protesters two days earlier. © Nicolas Axelrod /  Ruom

January 05, 2014 – Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Sam Rainsy, President and Kem Sokha, Vice President of the CNRP hold a prayer at their offices for the victims of the government crack down on protesters two days earlier. © Nicolas Axelrod / Ruom

• BOEUNG KAK ARRESTS

In defiance of the new declaration, land-rights activists from the community of Boeung Kak Lake attempted to deliver a petition to the French embassy on January 6th. Hoping to elicit international pressure for the release of the twenty-three detainees from the previous days, the group of women approached the embassy on foot, but was stopped by municipality security forces. After a brief altercation, an unmarked white van arrived; several of the high-profile activists were forced inside. The van pulled away as riot police looked on. The women were released the same day, though under strict orders to cease all future demonstrations.  Under the new laws restricting the right to assembly, Cambodia had become a de facto police state.

January 06, 2014 - Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Land-rights activist Tep Vanny is restrained inside a police van after activists from Boeung Kak lake tried to deliver a petition to the French embassy to ask the liberation of the 23 detainees arrested a few days earlier during a government crackdown on protesters. The five women were released that afternoon. © Luc Forsyth / Ruom

January 06, 2014 – Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Land-rights activist Tep Vanny is restrained inside a police van after activists from Boeung Kak lake tried to deliver a petition to the French embassy to ask the liberation of the 23 detainees arrested a few days earlier during a government crackdown on protesters. The five women were released that afternoon. © Luc Forsyth / Ruom

• VICTORY DAY

On January 7th, against the backdrop of the recent violent and political uncertainty, Hun Sen and the CPP held a large ceremony for Victory Day – the commemoration of the Vietnamese liberation of Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge.

In a speech delivered by honorary party president Heng Samrin, the CPP expressed that “Cambodia has been making progress in all fields,” while only vaguely alluding to the violent turmoil that occurred only days earlier.  With regards to the wide-spread opposition sweeping the nation, Samrin said: “They continue to consider themselves enemies of the January 7 victory, to make slanderous propaganda, to deceive the pubic, to disrespect the Constitution and existing laws while colluding to seek all means to deny the achievements scored by the Cambodia People’s Party for the country to cause political and socio-economic instability.”

With over 20 000 people in attendance, many having been bussed in from the countryside, the CPP was ironically in violation of its own anti-assembly laws.

January 07, 2014 - Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Cambodia People's Party law makers wait for the arrival of Prime Minister Hun Sen during the Victory day celebrations on Koh Pich Island. © Nicolas Axelrod / Ruom

January 07, 2014 – Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Cambodia People’s Party law makers wait for the arrival of Prime Minister Hun Sen during the Victory day celebrations on Koh Pich Island. © Nicolas Axelrod / Ruom

• BACK TO THE STREETS

For their part, CNRP supporters also chose to ignore the ban on public gatherings. On January 15th, an estimated 2 000 people gathered in front of the municipal courthouse in Phnom Penh as opposition party leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha were brought in for questioning  – ostensibly to determine their involvement in the deaths of the protestors earlier in the month. Upon emerging from the building, The Cambodia Daily quoted Rainsy as saying “We went to the court because we want the world to know about the reality. We did nothing wrong. We just protected the people’s will through nonviolence.”

January 16, 2014 - Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Protesters deliver a petition to Special Rapporteur Surya Subedi at UN OHCHR offices to call on the release of 23 detainees arrested during protests in early January. © Thomas Cristofoletti / Ruom

January 16, 2014 – Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Protesters deliver a petition to Special Rapporteur Surya Subedi at UN OHCHR offices to call on the release of 23 detainees arrested during protests in early January. © Thomas Cristofoletti / Ruom

January 14, 2014 - Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Kem Sokha, Vice President of the CNRP waves to supporters from the steps of the Municipal Court as he arrives for questioning over the opposition party's involvement in instigating unrest that lead to the January 03, 2014 crack down on protesters that left up to four deaths and 23 detainees.  © Thomas Cristofoletti / Ruom

January 14, 2014 – Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Kem Sokha, Vice President of the CNRP waves to supporters from the steps of the Municipal Court as he arrives for questioning over the opposition party’s involvement in instigating unrest that lead to the January 03, 2014 crack down on protesters that left up to four deaths and 23 detainees. © Thomas Cristofoletti / Ruom

• A SPECIAL RAPPORTEUR

The government crackdowns garnered international media attention, and prompted UN special envoy Surya Subedi to launch a human rights investigation – in which he condemned the violence.But there was also room for optimism in his words. In a private interview with Ruom Collective, the Special Rapporteur was eager to highlight the progress and positive changes in the realm of civil and political liberties. He pointed to the relatively free and peaceful elections, and to the overall tolerance of mass protests by the authorities as a testament to the “maturing of democracy in Cambodia.” After meeting with Prime Minister Hun Sen on January 15th to discuss Subedi’s recommendations, the envoy felt assured that the country was on a path to change.

January 16, 2014 - Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Special Rapporteur Surya Subedi is filmed during a press conference at the UN OHCHR offices. © Thomas Cristofoletti / Ruom

January 16, 2014 – Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Special Rapporteur Surya Subedi is filmed during a press conference at the UN OHCHR offices. © Thomas Cristofoletti / Ruom

• INTERNATIONAL INDIGNATION

Two days later, the parliament of the European Union weighed in as well – calling on Hun Sen’s government to hold an internationally supervised enquiry to examine both the deaths of the protestors, and the contested 2013 election results. The United States also made its concerns known, with Barack Obama signing off on a bill cutting a portion of U.S. aid to Cambodia. Politicians were not the only ones putting pressure on the Prime Minister. Major international corporations such as Nike, Wal-Mart, and H&M – whose goods are produced at the factories in question – sent a joint letter to Hun Sen, demanding an investigation.

Facing such mounting international scrutiny, Hun Sen decided to voice his own opinions at the opening of an orphanage in Kratie province. Stating that anyone who challenged his government would not be spared, he called on his supporters to be prepared to defend the country against a possible coup.

On January 19th, Sok Chhun Oeung, the acting vice president of the organization IDEA, became the latest victim in Cambodia’s political struggles. After organizing a small demonstration near the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, Oeung was pulled into a police truck and taken to the headquarters of the municipal police. Oeung only became the acting vice president of IDEA after the original vice president, Vorn Pao, was beaten and arrested during the January 2nd altercation in front of the Yak Jin factory complex. Oeung has since been released, but Long Dimanche, a spokesman for Phnom Penh city hall told Agence France Presse that this incident was a “yellow card for those who do not respect the law.”

January 19, 2014 - Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Vice-President of IDEA (Independent Democracy of informal Economy Association) Chhun Oeung arrested by riot police in front of the Royal Palace during a peaceful gathering. People were asking for the release of 23 detainees arrested during a government crack down on protesters calling for a raise in the minimum wage in early January © Nicolas Axelrod / Ruom

January 19, 2014 – Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Vice-President of IDEA (Independent Democracy of informal Economy Association) Chhun Oeung arrested by riot police in front of the Royal Palace during a peaceful gathering. People were asking for the release of 23 detainees arrested during a government crack down on protesters calling for a raise in the minimum wage in early January © Nicolas Axelrod / Ruom

With more small-scale protests scheduled for the upcoming weeks, and a supposed “second phase” of opposition party activity tentatively planned for early March, it remains to be seen how the endgame will play out in Cambodia’s long battle for democracy.

Additional reporting by Marta Kasztelan

Posted in Blog, Cambodia, Writing Tagged , , , , , , |

Cambodian Garment Factory Crackdown

Police attempt to storm a building occupied by protestors following a violent crackdown on striking garment workers, who were demanding a wage increase.

Police attempt to storm a building occupied by protestors following a violent crackdown on striking garment workers, who were demanding a wage increase.

The crackdowns on people protesting in support of garment factory workers made international news for a few days running, something that isn’t always typical of events in Cambodia.  Along with my colleagues in the Ruom Collective, our images from the clashes were published in nearly every news source of note, and amid the ensuing tidal wave of work it has been difficult to put the events into perspective. As a result, I’ve been finding it hard to put the recent violence out of my mind and so I’ve been hesitant to post anything from those days. Succeeding professionally on the back of a tragedy creates conflicting emotions in most people (myself included), so I wanted to make sure I had a chance to reflect clearly about what really happened – and what it means for the country.

I’m going to hold off publishing a full set of pictures until I have a little more time to think, but for now here are a few that give a basic sense of what happened.

_______________________________________

 The first days of 2014 were some of the most dramatic in recent Cambodian history. Not since 1998 had the country seen such violence. Wide-spread and large-scale protests, combined with strong anti-government sentiments, created a powder keg environments – and the police crackdown on garment factory workers, and others protesting on their behalf, was the spark that set it all off.

On January 2nd, a standoff between striking factory workers and members of the Cambodian army’s 911 Airborne Unit erupted into a sudden and unexpected street battle, which ended with the arrest of 10 protestors – including monks and union leaders. Several hours later, police forces aggressively dispersed a similar demonstration across town at the Canadia garment factory, reportedly beating several of the female protestors.

In response, residents of the area surrounding the factory blockaded the roads leading into the neighbourhood and started street fires – refusing to leave until hundreds of police stormed the area. Though the street was cleared without heavy resistance, the more militant protestors occupied a large apartment building nearby.

A siege situation developed and lasted late into the night. During repeated attempts to storm the structure, several police officers were injured. Ultimately the police were unable to clear the protestors from their stronghold and returned to their base, but the stage had been set for what was to come.

Special Forces soldiers from the 911 Airborne unit beat an observer from a non-profit organization after a stand off between the military and striking garment workers erupted into violence.

Special Forces soldiers from the 911 Airborne unit beat an observer from a non-profit organization after a stand off between the military and striking garment workers erupted into violence.

Protestors burn a wooden cart near the Canadia garment factory. People in support of striking garment workers attempted to fortify their neighbourhood in anticipation of the police or military response.

Protestors burn a wooden cart near the Canadia garment factory. People in support of striking garment workers attempted to fortify their neighbourhood in anticipation of the police or military response.

Police charge a protestor-held street after a standoff lasting several hours.

Police charge a protestor-held street after a standoff lasting several hours.

Early on the morning of January 3rd, the protestors returned to man their barricades. Police arrived to retake the area, this time firing live rounds rather than wielding rubber batons. At least four people were killed. Though the main body of resistance was broken, smaller groups faced off against police and Special Forces units throughout the morning.

A wounded man is carried out of the battlefield after being shot by police.

A wounded man is carried out of the battlefield after being shot by police.

Soldiers sit outside a medical clinic after retaking the area from protestors.

Soldiers sit outside a medical clinic after retaking the area from protestors.

On January 4th, seemingly intent on preventing any further protest, police surrounded Freedom Park, the major rallying point for the Cambodian National Rescue Party – the main opposition party. Uniformed officers and plain clothed citizens, armed with wooden rods and pieces of rebar, forced CNRP supporters – largely comprised of rural seniors – out of the park. For the next hour they destroyed the tents and stage that had been host to daily rallies since October.

Police and plainclothes CPP supporters charge into Freedom Park, the main rallying point for opposition party events.

Police and plainclothes CPP supporters charge into Freedom Park, the main rallying point for opposition party events.

CPP supporters tear down the tents and other temporary facilities which have been standing in Freedom Park since December.

CPP supporters tear down the tents and other temporary facilities which have been standing in Freedom Park since December.

The long-ruling CPP has decided to decisively stamp out its opposition and the future of Cambodian democracy is uncertain.

 

Posted in Blog, Cambodia, Protest Tagged , , , , , , , , , |