“The killing of demonstrators by government authorities is totally unacceptable,” said FIDH President Karim Lahidji. “The government must use dialogue, not guns and batons, to address workers’ demands and to deal with political dissent,” he added.
On January 3, security forces attacked striking workers at Canadia Industrial Park, in southwest Phnom Penh. The area is home to numerous garment factories that make clothing for global brands. After unsuccessful attempts to clear the striking workers from a road they had been blocking, clashes escalated and police opened fire on the workers. At least four workers were killed and more than 20 suffered bullet wounds. Police also detained at least 13 people.
Tens of thousands of garment workers in Phnom Penh began strikes and protests in late December to demand that the government increase the monthly minimum wage for garment and footwear workers from US$80 to US$160. On December 31, 2013, the Cambodian Labor Ministry announced that the minimum wage would be raised to US$100 per month in February, 2014.
The January 3 deadly crackdown followed an attack on striking workers a day earlier outside a garment factory in Phnom Penh’s Pursenchey District. Soldiers from Special Command Unit 911 attacked the striking workers with batons and injured 20 people. Soldiers also detained 15 people, including eight workers, five monks, and human rights defenders Vorn Pov and Theng Savuen, President of the Independent Democracy of Informal Economic Association (IDEA) and Coordinator of the Coalition of Cambodian Farmer Community (CCFC) respectively. Ten of those arrested on charges of committing acts of violence and causing damage under Article 218 and 414 of the Criminal Code. Although the court originally stated that the arrestees would be detained in Phnom Penh’s Correctional Center 1 (CC1), they never arrived and authorities hid their actual location for two days. Instead of being sent to CC1, the arrestees were transported to Correctional Centers 3 and 4, which are located outside of Phnom Penh. Some had been brutally beaten during their arrest and were in urgent need of medical care.
“The deployment of military units and the use of lethal force to suppress workers’ legitimate right to strike are extremely troubling,” said ADHOC President Thun Saray.
“The government must launch a quick, thorough, and independent investigation into the 3 January killings and hold those responsible accountable. Authorities must also immediately release workers, monks, and human rights defenders who have been arbitrarily detained in connection with the protests,” Mr. Saray urged.
The UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials require that the use of force is subject to the requirements of necessity and proportionality. Specifically, the Basic Principles state that firearms shall never be used unless “less extreme means are insufficient.” In addition, whenever the use of force and firearms is unavoidable, law enforcement officials shall “respect and preserve human life.”
In addition, the ILO interpretation of its Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize Convention (Convention No 87), which Cambodia has ratified, stated that “no one should be deprived of their freedom or be subject to penal sanctions for the mere fact of organizing or participating in a peaceful strike.”
At the same time as its violent response to the workers’ strikes, the Cambodia government also cracked down on opposition leaders and peaceful anti-government protests.
On January 3, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court summoned Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha, the leaders of the main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), to appear for questioning on January 14. The court said the two would be questioned about their alleged involvement in inciting people to commit crimes and committing acts that led to social unrest.
On January 4, riot police dispersed about 1,000 anti-government protesters from Freedom Park in central Phnom Penh. Police armed with batons and thugs wearing civilian clothes beat and chased protesters, including monks and women, from the protest site and destroyed stages and other structures, including a Buddhist shrine. Anti-government protesters had camped at Freedom Park since mid-December to demand that Prime Minister Hun Sen step down and call new elections.
“The authorities have responded to peaceful anti-government demonstration with violence,” said LICADHO Director Naly Pilorge. “It is obvious that the government has used the workers’ protest as a pretext to clamp down on it political opponents,” she added.
On January 4, Phnom Penh Municipal Governor Pa Socheatvong banned the CNRP from holding any protests in the capital “until the security situation has returned to normal.”
“A sweeping, indefinite ban on political protests is unlawful and unmotivated,” said Ms. Pilorge. ”The government should tolerate peaceful dissent and end the ongoing harassment of its political opponents,” she urged.
"CCFD-Terre Solidaire, active in Cambodia since the 1990s and recently engaged in defending victims of forced evictions and garment workers, condemns the latest crackdown on the Cambodian people’s freedom of expression and assembly," said Bernard Pinaud, General Delegate of CCFD-Terre Solidaire.
ADHOC and LICADHO are both FIDH Cambodian member organizations. ADHOC is one of CCFD’s partner organizations.