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