Category Archives: Protest

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.

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 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.

 

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Garment Workers March on Council of Ministers

Garment workers took to the streets today after their demands for a wage increase were rejected again by the government of Cambodia. The protest began outside the Ministry of Labour building, but after hearing the disappointing result thousands of demonstrators moved towards the Council of Ministers. The government was apparently well prepared for the action; hundreds of riot police waited for the group as they walked east on the Russian Boulevard.

Though the protest was essentially peaceful, the police stretched immense barbed wire barricades across the road and multiple officers were armed with tear gas launchers – tools not typically seen at minor demonstrations.

The event lasted all day so I didn’t have time to put together a lengthy written article – but I wanted to get something out before New Year’s Eve. The protestors left the area as the sun set, announcing they would be back tomorrow, so there will definitely be more to come. As we move into 2014, let’s hope this widespread government protesting can stay peaceful.

Crowds of garment workers and supporters gather outside the Ministry of Labour building, waiting to see if the government has agreed to their demands.

Crowds of garment workers and supporters gather outside the Ministry of Labour building, waiting to see if the government has agreed to their demands.

A representative of the garment worker's union leaves the Ministry of Labour building as protestors wait outside the walls to hear if the government has agreed to their demands.

A representative of the garment worker’s union leaves the Ministry of Labour building as protestors wait outside the walls to hear if the government has agreed to their demands.

Garment workers load into large trucks for transportation to the Council of Ministers building after their demands were rejected by the government.

Garment workers load into large trucks for transportation to the Council of Ministers building after their demands were rejected by the government.

Reinforcement units move towards the barricade lines.

Reinforcement units move towards the barricade lines.

The garment workers are demanding a pay increase to $160 per month, claiming their current wages are not enough to live on.

The garment workers are demanding a pay increase to $160 per month, claiming their current wages are not enough to live on.

Police and protestors face off accross the barbed wire barricade as the size of the demonstration grows.

Police and protestors face off accross the barbed wire barricade as the size of the demonstration grows.

Police push through a barrier set up by protestors, moving the group away from the Council of Ministers building.

Police push through a barrier set up by protestors, moving the group away from the Council of Ministers building.

Protestors stay at the barricades until late in the afternoon.

Protestors stay at the barricades until late in the afternoon.

A boy collects waterbottles that protestors have thrown over the barricades.

A boy collects waterbottles that protestors have thrown over the barricades.

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Street Protests Grow Ahead of Christmas

Protestors continue to take to the streets in the thousands, a week after Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy’s surprise announcement that the CNRP would begin daily public demonstrations in Phnom Penh. Earlier in the month CNRP representatives had indicated that they would be avoiding physical confrontations with the current government, and instead seek a negotiated settlement to the disputed 2013 election results. Perhaps under pressure from their supporters, the opposition party has done a 180 – holding large-scale public marches through the heart of the capital. They walk through the streets every day chanting derisive slogans against the unpopular incumbent Prime Minister, Hun Sen, and in years of visiting this country, I’ve never seen so many people united under one banner.

I’ve been out of town on an assignment for Handicap International (more on that after the holidays), and haven’t really been covering the breaking news side of Cambodia. Yesterday I was able to get back out and reacquaint myself with the political pulse of the country, and was completely caught off guard by the sheer energy and numbers of the demonstrators. Truth be told, I had expected the protests to die down substantially after a few days, when economic necessity demanded that people go back to their jobs; instead the crowd seems to be growing. I’ve got more things on the go than I can handle right now, so I doubt I’ll be a source of total news coverage on the events as they unfold, but I wanted to give a short update on the political climate as we move into the holidays. Merry Christmas!

CNRP supporters form a wall to hold the front elements of the protest from moving too far ahead of the main body of the demonstration.

CNRP supporters form a wall to hold the front elements of the protest from moving too far ahead of the main body of the demonstration.

CNRP leaders rally their supporters.

CNRP leaders rally their supporters.

A bus is stuck in as the line of marchers floods South along Monivong Boulevard.

A bus is stuck in traffic as the line of marchers floods South along Monivong Boulevard.

A Japanese photographer seizes the opportunity to get some unique angles from a CNRP vehicle. Though the protests are highly publicized in foreign media, the Khmer newspapers make no reference to the demonstrations at all. Instead they run front page stories about the recent troubles in neighbouring Thailand.

A Japanese photographer seizes the opportunity to get some unique angles from a CNRP vehicle. Though the protests are highly publicized in foreign media, the Khmer newspapers make no reference to the demonstrations at all. Instead they run front page stories about the recent troubles in neighbouring Thailand.

Protestors move the paradise hotel, shutting down the large intersection.

Protestors move the paradise hotel, shutting down the large intersection.

A CNRP supporter shouts anti-government, pro-change messages through a tuk-tuk mounted sound system.

A CNRP supporter shouts anti-government, pro-change messages through a tuk-tuk mounted sound system.

The demonstration stretches through downtown Phnom Penh.

The demonstration stretches through downtown Phnom Penh.

 

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The Unlikely Peace of Human Rights Day

A woman seeks blessing from a Buddhist monk on the morning of Human Rights Day.

A woman seeks blessing from a Buddhist monk on the morning of Human Rights Day.

On the morning of Human Rights Day, the elevator doors in my apartment building opened on the ground floor and I took a few steps out into the open-air parking lot. The immense steel gates that separated the courtyard from the street were locked, and it took several awkward minutes of whisper-shouting to wake the night guard. By the time he finally located the key and let me out, I was dangerously close to missing my 5:30 rendezvous. Walking quickly, I passed the dark shapes of moto-taxi drivers stretching against their vehicles in the pre-dawn gloom, ignoring their offers of service.

As I rounded the corner of Street 360, I experienced a moment of panic when Thomas and Omar were not in front of the Kiwi mart as they were supposed to be. We were heading to a pagoda on the outskirts of Phnom Penh to follow a group of Buddhist monks on a human rights march, but since I didn’t know how to get there I was totally reliant on my friends’ local knowledge. If they had already left I would miss the conclusion to a story I had been covering for the last week. I was already imagining the shame of returning home empty handed while they captured Pulitzer-caliber images of a once-in-a-lifetime event, when my phone vibrated in my pocket. One of them had over slept. Relieved, I bought two cans of extra-strong ice coffee and dropped into an aluminum patio chair to wait.

Fifteen minutes later we were sitting in a tuk-tuk, cruising down Preah Sisowath Quay with the darkened banks of the Tonle Sap River to the east. The streets were clear of traffic so early in the morning, and the normally bustling riverside restaurants were shuttered. Further north we passed a temporary army camp set up on the lawn of an international hotel, and all of us wondered if the day would turn violent.

Once past the Japanese bridge, as Chroy Changvar is colloquially known, the road merges with national highway 5. Gradually the tourist traps of the city gave way to the machine shops and small manufacturing businesses that typify urban Cambodia. We began to see other journalists on the road, presumably making their way to the same place as we were. Driving motorcycles that were much nimbler than our own lumbering vehicle, they sped past us and shouted greetings that were mostly lost in the wind.

Not long later, the tuk-tuk’s screaming engine decelerated gratefully and we made a slow left turn across traffic into the long laneway leading to Wat Ottara Watey. Inside the pagoda grounds, monks and citizen activists were grouped together eating breakfast out of styrofoam takeout containers. Those who had already finished scrambled to make last minute preparations for the march, loading cases of water onto flatbed trucks and checking the condition of their Justice Brings Peace banners. Photographers moved between the groups, snapping pictures and talking with people they recognized from previous demonstrations. The mood was social and light, as if the protestors were marching towards an organized convention rather than a potentially dangerous clash with the police. The government had officially withheld permission for the event and no one knew what the consequences of defying them might be. In preparation for the worst, many of the foreign journalists had brought riot helmets. The marchers wore no such protection.

An hour later we were moving. The residents of Phnom Penh had come out of their homes in the thousands and lined both sides of the road as the procession walked towards the city. Mingled among them were the ubiquitous government informers using radios and cell phones to notify the authorities of our progress. As they took photos of the protesters with smartphones, several monks, perhaps feeling that their religious authority would protect them from retaliation, pointed cameras back at them. Strange standoffs ensued with neither party wanting to be the first to walk away. They stood in place and took photo after photo, slowly pushing their cameras closer and closer to each other’s faces. In one exchange I counted over forty shutter clicks.

Monks form up before beginning their protest march to the National Assembly building

Monks form up before beginning their protest march to the National Assembly building

Residents come out of their homes to watch the procession, offering support.

Residents come out of their homes to watch the procession, offering support.

A marcher waves to a truckload of protestors en route to a separate demonstration at Wat Phnom.

A marcher waves to a truckload of protestors en route to a separate demonstration at Wat Phnom.

Phnom Penh residents and shopkeepers come out of their homes to offer water and energy drinks to Human Rights Day marchers.

Phnom Penh residents and shopkeepers come out of their homes to offer water and energy drinks to Human Rights Day marchers.

As the marchers near Phnom Penh, no police appear to block their way.

As the marchers near Phnom Penh, no police appear to block their way.

By 8.30 a.m. the long line of marchers was inside the city center. Riverside was no longer quiet, and early rising tourists stared at our group over the rims of their coffee mugs. Some pulled camera phones out of their pockets. Now that the protest was in the public eye, I was sure a police barricade would be waiting around every corner. Remembering the street riot that saw one bystander dead and many more injured following a garment worker strike last month, I fingered the helmet attached to my camera bag.

But nothing happened. Street by street, block by block, the column moved closer to their destination without a rubber baton or tazer in sight. Only when the National Assembly building was in view did it finally sink in that the police were not going to respond. If they were as surprised as I was, the group leaders didn’t show it. They simply walked over to the nearest patch of shady grass and sat down, perhaps finally able to release some of the tension and exhaustion from the ten-day march on Phnom Penh. They had made it, and a few quick phone calls were enough to confirm that the groups approaching from other sides of the city would make it too.

Where were the police? After attending several dozen protests over years of visiting Cambodia, this passivity was at odds with my past experiences.  Harsh government crackdowns on civil unrest were one of the few constants in the Kingdom, and though I was relieved that no one had been hurt, the absence of a reaction was somehow unsettling. I half expected trick; a trap door would open and disgorge thousands of heavily armed shock troops into the street, or secretly installed tear gas launchers would fire from the bushes, scattering the unwary mob. A Twitter post from the satirical social media persona Hun Sen’s Eye echoed my suspicions: “protestors are now entitled to a 15-second head start before we unleash the riot tigers.”

But as the crowd grew to over a thousand strong, such scenarios became increasingly unlikely. For most of an hour I circulated among the crowd, taking pictures and exchanging rumors with other journalists until the merciless sun sent me in search of shade and water. I followed the outer wall of the National Assembly building, searching for a drink vendor. When I stepped around the northeast corner, I saw them: several clusters of men in olive drab uniforms, looking in my direction from their positions in Hun Sen Park. They were sitting in the grass under a tree, drinking Coca-Cola out of plastic bags and chatting on their cell phones.

The protestors reach the National Assembly building and are joined by other groups. Their numbers grow to over a thousand yet there is no reaction from police forces.

The protestors reach the National Assembly building and are joined by other groups. Their numbers grow to over a thousand yet there is no reaction from police forces.

Guards stand behind the gates of the National Assembly building, but make no attempt to disrupt the protest. Government staff take photos and video of the event with smartphones from within the compound.

Guards stand behind the gates of the National Assembly building, but make no attempt to disrupt the protest. Behind, government staff take photos and video of the event with smartphones from within the compound.

Minimal police are present at the site of the protest.

Minimal police are present at the site of the protest.

One of the largest concentrations of officers at the protest, sitting in Hun Sen Park seeking shade.

One of the largest concentrations of officers at the protest, sitting in Hun Sen Park seeking shade.

While later on that night much larger concentrations of riot police gathered around Wat Phnom and engaged in minor clashes with small groups of especially zealous protestors, the 2013 Human Rights Day was essentially a peaceful affair. Other than the officers in the park and a few token guards around the National Assembly’s main entrance, the government refrained from its normal muscle flexing. The demonstration continued unopposed until noon, when the tired group of monks and activists returned to their homes voluntarily.

Maybe this is the new face of Cambodia, a redefined nation with a tolerant approach to political dissention. But somehow I doubt it.

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Monks Begin Protest Marches Ahead of Human Rights Day

The 2013 International Human Rights Day on December 10th will mark one of the largest and most coordinated anti-government protests in Cambodian history. The current Prime Minister, Hun Sen, has been running a de facto one party state in the small Southeast Asian nation, and has an abysmal human rights record. But the tides of fortune seem to be turning on the region’s longest ruling strongman, with his Cambodian People’s Party losing 55 assembly seats in the 2013 national election – elections that were widely suspected of being rigged.

Multiple demonstrations will converge on Phnom Penh’s National Assembly building, including large groups of politically active Buddhist monks. Though monks participation in protests has been an emerging trend in Cambodia recently, the scale of the actions planned for December 10th will be the largest yet. Separate parties will travel down every major national highway, combining forces and joining similar protests from the main opposition party, and the garment workers union. The monks will be walking for roughly 10 days, spreading their social views to the villages they pass through.

Monks prepare to sleep for the night before waking early to begin their march.

Monks prepare to sleep for the night before waking early to begin their march.

Monks begin to wake at 5am in Wat Baray, their temporary home for the night.

Monks begin to wake at 5am in Wat Baray, their temporary home for the night.

Monks form up begin their day's march to Phnom Penh.

Monks form up begin their day’s march to Phnom Penh.

A woman asks for blessing outside Wat Baray, the starting point for the march to Phnom Penh.

A woman asks for blessing outside Wat Baray, the starting point for day’s leg of the march towards Phnom Penh.

The procession includes monks and citizen activist groups from communities affected by government policies.

The procession includes monks and citizen activist groups from communities affected by government policies.

Monks pass local traffic along national highway 6.

Monks pass local traffic along national highway 6, roughly 150km away from Phnom Penh.

Villagers wait in front of their homes along the highway, presenting alms of money, rice, and water to the marching monks. In return the monks offer water blessings recite the Dharma.

Villagers wait in front of their homes along the highway, presenting alms of money, rice, and water to the marching monks. In return the monks offer water blessings and recite the Dharma.

A villager kneels for a Buddhist water blessing along the highway to Phnom Penh.

A villager kneels for a Buddhist water blessing along national highway 6.

 

These images are from just one group of monks, along only one of the marching routes. When they finally merge in the capital next week, their numbers will have swollen into the hundreds. Though everyone is hoping that the government will not react harshly in light of it being Human Rights Day, foreign journalists are stocking up on anti-teargas supplies and riot protection gear in anticipation of violence.

The Ruom Collective will be dispatching three photographers and three writers to cover various aspects of the events as they unfold, and we will be sharing them as the happen.

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March to the Arang Valley

My friend and fellow Phnom Penh photojournalist, Thomas Cristofoletti, called me a week ago and asked nonchalantly if I wanted to go walk into the jungle with a group of forty monks. Truth be told, I really didn’t have any idea what he was talking about – but it seemed like a fantastic proposition nevertheless. It’s the first time I’ve been asked that question anyways, and I wouldn’t have been able to respect myself had I said no.

Several days later, when I was crossing rivers in the black of night, it seemed less fantastic.

The monks, working in partnership with several non-profit organizations, were heading to the remote Arang valley in western Cambodia in order to raise awareness about the dangers of deforestation. The only way to get to the village of Pra Lay, where the bulk of the monk’s demonstration was scheduled to take place, was along a winding dirt path of unknown distance.

In the beginning we were under the impression the walk would be about 16km, which is, though strenuous on an uneven jungle road, very manageable. Halfway through the walk, rumours began to circulate that the actual length of the trail was over 30km. In the end, the most agreed upon number seemed to be around 25km, but that element of not knowing how much longer made things all the more tiring when we were still walking at midnight.

I was wearing tough leather boots, while the monks wore battered leather or rubber sandals. Add to that the fact that Buddhist monks do not eat anything after 12 p.m., and so had been walking for more than eight hours on empty stomachs. Together with a young monk, Prim Huon, I was the first to arrive on foot at 1.33 a.m; many of the older monks who had fallen behind didn’t straggle in until around 4.

Since I haven’t finished the editing yet and have spent most of the day slogging through audio transcriptions of the interviews I conducted, I’m just going to share a handful of images as a preview. The rest of the story will be ready by early next week.

This is one of the first cases where monks have come together in a large group to protest environmental destruction, and I look forward to sharing it more fully.

The group of monks cross a river during their night march. They have walked roughly 8 of the 25 km necessary.

The group of monks cross a river during their night march. They have walked roughly 8 of the 25 km necessary.

The monks eat a snack of green bananas on the morning after their march. Many of the monks were exhausted by the walk and are slow to wake up.

The monks eat a snack of green bananas on the morning after their march. Many of the monks were exhausted by the walk and are slow to wake up.

Monks and volunteers prepare a length of orange cloth which they will use to bless trees in the Arang valley. The blessings are part of an effort to raise environmental awareness and prevent deforestation. Monks are becoming increasingly involved in political and environmental issues in Cambodia.

Monks and volunteers prepare a length of orange cloth which they will use to bless trees in the Arang valley. The blessings are part of an effort to raise environmental awareness and prevent deforestation. Monks are becoming increasingly involved in political and environmental issues in Cambodia.

Monks march through the village of Pra Lay in the Arang Valley hoping to encourage the residents to think criticially about environmental protection.

Monks march through the village of Pra Lay in the Arang Valley, hoping to encourage the residents to think critically about environmental protection.

Monks wrap orange cloth around large trees in the Arang Valley. By blessing the trees they hope to discourage deforestation.

Monks wrap orange cloth around large trees in the Arang Valley. By blessing the trees they hope to discourage deforestation.

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Borei Keila Protest March

The first in depth photo project I did in Cambodia was focused on the forced eviction of the Borei Keila community. A year later, the situation barely seems to have changed. The residents of Borei Keila are still waiting on adequate compensation from either the government or the land development corporation, and it doesn’t seem like either entity has made the issue a top priority.

In an attempt to force a resolution to the situation, the residents turned to one of the only weapons at their disposal: public protest.

Marches and rallies have becoming increasingly popular in Phnom Penh, and the ubiquity of smartphone-toting citizen journalists suggests that Cambodians are taking cues from the Arab Spring uprisings.

On October 30th, the residents of Borei Keila met at 8.30 in the morning to began their march. But before they had set out from their community, the police had established the first of many road blocks the day would see.

Riot police form a line in an attempt to prevent the protestors from leaving Borei Keila.

Riot police form a line in an attempt to prevent the protestors from leaving Borei KeilaThough the police lines looked initially formidable, making an ostentatious display of banging batons against their riot shields, their resolve was less than firm. Despite urgent commands from the officer in charge, the officers gave way to the group – mainly comprised of middle aged and elderly women – within a few minutes.

With this initial obstacle overcome, the protestors marched out of Borei Keila and towards the  Peace Palace – the ironically named building which houses the offices of the top government officials.

It only stands to reason that a violent reaction from the officers would bring much needed international attention to the Borei Keila cause , and so for nearly an hour they pushed, jostled, and attempted to generally provoke the police as they shouted their message.

The riot line  breaks as the protestors force their way through. Police resistance seems half hearted and they give ground almost immediately.

The riot line breaks as the protestors force their way through. Police resistance seems half hearted and they give ground almost immediately.

The Borei Keila protestors march towards the Peace Palace, the location of President Hun Sen's office.

The Borei Keila protestors march towards the Peace Palace, the location of President Hun Sen’s office.

A protestor cries out in front of the riot police protecting the Peace Palace.

A protestor cries out in front of the riot police protecting the Peace Palace.

A protestor expresses anger with a police officer after being pushed.

A protestor expresses anger with a police officer after being pushed.

Government workers look out from the Peace Palace compound, watching the protestors.

Government workers look out from the Peace Palace compound, watching the protestors.

Though the regular police forces acted with relative restraint, when the protestors left the Peace Palace and blocked traffic on Monivong Boulevard near City Hall, more aggressive blue-clad security officers moved into the fray and seized an unidentified man from the crowd. Neither Cambodian nor foreign journalists were able to learn why this man was targeted; rumours circulated that they had actually been after a journalist and had taken the wrong person.

Rumours aside, the man wan dragged inside the walled City Hall compound and allegedly beaten. In response, the protestors rushed the gates and threw food and debris over the fence, but the fate of the man was unclear.

A protestor whips a sarong at riot police. After protestors block the road in front of City Hall, police move in to clear the street and the confrontation resumes.

A protestor whips a sarong at riot police. After protestors block the road in front of City Hall, police move in to clear the street and the confrontation resumes.

A protestor cries after being knocked to the ground by police.

A protestor cries after being knocked to the ground by police.

Security forces seize an unidentified man from the crowd of protestors and drag him inside the City Hall compound, where he is allegedly beaten.

Security forces seize an unidentified man from the crowd of protestors and drag him inside the City Hall compound, where he was allegedly beaten.

In the face of this violence, the marchers returned to Borei Keila to plan their next move, postponing plans to occupy a building being built by the same land developer responsible for their evictions years before.

The issue of land grabbing and forced evictions in Cambodia is ongoing, and this protest was just one event in what will surely be an ongoing campaign.

 

Protestors throw rice and debris over the gates of City Hall after a man was dragged from the ground and allegedly beaten inside the compound. The food had been part of a Buddhist offering.

Protestors throw rice and debris over the gates of City Hall after a man was dragged from the ground and allegedly beaten inside the compound. The food had been part of a Buddhist offering.

 

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North Korean Repatriation Night Protests

I’ve been completely swamped recently trying to meet a writing deadline, so I apologize for the lack of posts recently.

Since taking part in the North Korean Repatriation protests outside the Chinese embassy a few weeks ago, I’ve started to build up a contact base among some North Korean defectors. With the help of my friend Moon Yeong acting as translator, I’ve been able to start interviewing some of these people and we’ve heard some amazing stories. The process has been slow as many defectors are nervous about having their photo taken (many have families remaining in North Korea and they will face harsh punishments if it is discovered they are related to a defector), but it promises to be a great project.

Here are a couple of nice images of the evening protests, held every night. The full stories will be coming as soon as I can get caught up with my assignments.

Choi Joo Wual, president of the North Korean Defectors Association, has helped over 10,000 defectors settle in new countries.

A teenager holds a candle as he prays for the Chinese government to change their repatriation policies

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North Korean Refugee Protests in Seoul

A protestor outside the Chinese embassy in Seoul

An elderly man protests the Chinese repatriation of North Korean refugees on a chilly day in Seoul.

The international media loves North Korea. It seems like a perfect example of a place of repression where life is tough and the hardships are never ending. So it is not surprising to read accounts of people so desperate to get out that they will risk not only their own life, but the lives of anyone they have any sort of close relationship with. Since three armies (South Korean, North Korean and American) fortify the Southern border, the only way out of the world’s last truly closed country is North, into China. Would be escapees must swim across the Yalu/Amnok river and hope to be accepted as refugees on the other side. The punishment for getting caught, to the best of my knowledge, is summary execution.

If they are successful in getting into China, the refugees then begin the laborious process of trying to start a new life. Many head to South Korea where they are given instant asylum and citizenship. Some resettle in South East Asia, and some relocate to whichever Western countries are willing to take them. But what if these people go through the harrowing ordeal of sneaking past security forces and swimming to their perceived freedom only to be seized by Chinese authorities and unceremoniously shipping back to North Korea to face their almost certain death?

This is the most recent challenge facing North Korean defectors, 31 of whom were apparently “repatriated” in secret this month. And since the 100-days of mourning for the death of Kim Jong-Il is still in effect, Kim Jong-Eun, his son, has mandated that anyone guilty of attempting escape during this period will be punished by having three generations of their family exterminated.

This has caused an outcry among human rights groups and North Korean refugees around the world, those in Seoul being no exception, against the Chinese policy. These images are from a protest outside the Chinese embassy where several activists are camped out on a hunger strike. One man I met had gone 22 days without eating and was barely able to stand up.

They were very welcoming and pleased that I was interested in their cause, and it looks hopeful that I’ll be able to do a more in depth project about the lives of North Korean refugees. More to come.

Ju Wual Choi, a North Korean refugee, camps outside the Chinese embassy, six days into a hunger strike. He gives me a surreal business card that states his title as the president of "The Association of the North Korean Defectors"

 

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Protest in Seoul: Opposing the FTA

Protestors listen to a speaker arguing against the FTA

 

To view the full image gallery, click HERE.

Well into the second month of protesting, demonstrators gather around Seoul’s city hall in the hundreds, despite the sub-zero weather.

Initially signed in 2007, adjustments to the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement in February 2011 give American companies increased advantages when entering the South Korean market. According to the  Office of the United States Trade Representative, “Once it enters into force, the Agreement will be the United States’ most commercially significant free trade agreement in more than 16 years.”

Many Koreans are less than supportive of the agreement, however, feeling that it is one sided and will benefit American interests above those of Korea. While large conglomerates such as Samsung and Hyundai stand to make substantial profits by gaining tariff-free access to U.S. customers, many Korean industries – such as agriculture and entertainment – feel they may be overwhelmed by American competitors.

The anti-FTA protests closer resemble a music festival than a violent confrontation. Performers dominate the small stage, singing about Korean President Lee Myun Bak’s American subservience and the evils of corporate greed. The scene hardly looks threatening.

Yet hours before the crowds gather, hundreds of police vehicles including buses, armoured cars and riot control vans arrive at City Hall. Riot police in the thousands spread out around the area in full body armour.

hours before protests begin, riot police surround the area.

 

There are no indicators of agression by either the police or the protestors, and the demonstration winds down as the sun sets and the temperature drops. As people attempt to leave the area, however, they find that the sidewalks have been blocked off, preventing access to the subway station. With no way around, the tension escalates.

a man shouts "rotten police"

A man argues with a police sergeant

 

The situation reaches its peak when a young girl is trampled after being pulled beneath the police lines.

A trampled girl recovers under a pile of jackets.

 

Realizing that they are exacerbating an otherwise peaceful group of people, police commanders abandon the sidewalk blockades and instead redeploy their men to protect local hotels and businesses.

Police move to redeploy around nearby hotels.

 

As quickly as they began, the hostilities cease. Protestors leave the area to seek warmth, and the police withdraw to their vehicles.

It seems unlikely that the protestors will prevail. South Korea’s current government is highly conservative, and President Lee is an individual with powerful corporate connections – he is a former top executive of the Hyundai Construction Corporation, and it is widely believed that many of his political decisions are based on the company’s interests. With the massive police presence (at least three officers to every protestor), President Lee seems to be more focused on demonstrating the power of the state rather than responding to public opinion.

The United States was once among the most popular countries for South Koreans, with many Koreans believing in the power of the American Dream. But the golden age of public relations seems to be dwindling, and many have become disillusioned with the U.S.

It remains to be seen whether or not the protests will have any affect on the FTA proceedings. Despite the weather, demonstrations can are scheduled every weekend at City Hall and Gwanghwamun station, and can be attended by anyone who is interested.

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