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.
• 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.
• 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.
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.
• 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.
• 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.
• 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.
• 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.”
• 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.
• 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.”
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