Tag Archives: cambodia news

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.

 

Posted in Blog, Cambodia, Protest Also tagged , , , , , , , , |

Cambodian Crackdown

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 – with some estimates as high as six. 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.

Striking garment factory workers and the Cambodian army's 911 Airborne unit face off. Garment workers across Cambodia have been engaged in a long-running campaign for wage increases, which has been rejected by the government.

Striking garment factory workers and the Cambodian army’s 911 Airborne unit face off. Garment workers across Cambodia have been engaged in a long-running campaign for wage increases, which has been rejected by the government.

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 errupted 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 errupted into violence.

A truck driver is stuck in traffic as demonstrators in support of striking garment workers block National Highway 4.

A truck driver is stuck in traffic as demonstrators in support of striking garment workers block National Highway 4.

Protestors pile debris to create barricades against police following a violent crackdown on garment factory workers requesting a wage increase.

Protestors pile debris to create barricades against police following a violent crackdown on garment factory workers requesting a wage increase.

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.

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.

Police fire tear gas at a building occupied by protestors.

Police fire tear gas at a building occupied by protestors.

A protestor waves the Cambodian flag while police attempt to clear the area.

A protestor waves the Cambodian flag while police attempt to clear the area.

Protestors near the Canadia garment factory during a police incursion into the area.

Protestors near the Canadia garment factory during a police incursion into the area.

Protestors carry objects out of a nearby medical clinic to be used as fuel for street fires.

Protestors carry objects out of a nearby medical clinic to be used as fuel for street fires.

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.

Ashes coat the road in front of the Canadia garment factory the morning after police and military forces recaptured the area from protestors.

Ashes coat the road in front of the Canadia garment factory the morning after police and military forces recaptured the area from protestors.

The mostly empty houses inside the Canadia garment factory. An estimated 80% of workers fled the area in fear of further persecution.

The mostly empty houses inside the Canadia garment factory. An estimated 80% of workers fled the area in fear of further persecution.

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.

People flee Freedom Park. A mixture of police and plainclothes CPP supporters charged the area, weilding batons, clubs, and pieces of rebar, declaring the area closed for all demstrations for a period of three days.

People flee Freedom Park. A mixture of police and plainclothes CPP supporters charged the area, weilding batons, clubs, and pieces of rebar, declaring the area closed for all demstrations for a period of three days.

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.

A CPP supporter prepares to strike an image of Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha, the leaders of the Cambodian National Rescue Party - the main opposition to the government.

A CPP supporter prepares to strike an image of Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha, the leaders of the Cambodian National Rescue Party – the main opposition to the government.

 

 

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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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