Protests in Cambodia called off amid increased police violence

Protesters are demanding a higher minimum wage and a recall election for the country's prime minister

A group of police gather at Veng Sreng boulevard on Saturday, after dismantling a protest site where heavy clashes ended on Friday with five people dead.
Omar Havana/Getty Images

Anti-government demonstrators on Saturday called off a mass rally they had planned to stage in the Cambodian capital on Sunday, following a bloody crackdown on garment workers allied with the protest movement over the past several days.

The decision to call off the rally came hours after security guards and city workers, watched over by riot police, dismantled a camp occupied by anti-government demonstrators.

Friday's clashes, during which police shot dead four people, have stoked a political crisis in which striking workers and supporters of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) are challenging a government they say cheated its way to power and is depriving Cambodians of a fair wage.

"The Cambodia National Rescue Party would like to inform all national compatriots that the party will suspend the (planned) protest," the CNRP said in a brief statement.

Hundreds of CNRP supporters had been camped since Dec. 15 in tents around a stage in Freedom Park, the only place in Phnom Penh where protests are allowed. Protests and clashes have arisen across the country in recent months.

Unions representing garment workers want better pay and support the CNRP's demands for a re-run of an election in July it says was rigged to allow long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen to remain in power.

Friday's clashes took place at Phnom Penh's Canadia Industrial Park, which is home to dozens of factories that make clothing for Western brands such as Adidas, Puma and H&M.

Puma’s German headquarters said in a statement that production at some of its plants in Phnom Penh had been halted for now but gave no other details. Puma's sporting goods are made in about 400 factories worldwide, 13 of them in Cambodia. An Adidas statement said the group was concerned about recent events in Cambodia and was in contact with its suppliers there.

On Saturday, many CNRP supporters grabbed their belongings and fled, some clutching babies, when they saw riot police approaching Freedom Park.

Riot police, however, held back from the main site while security guards and city workers in plain clothes, some carrying axes and steel pipes, moved in to dismantle the stage and tents. Three helicopters flew low overhead, while riot police carrying batons kept journalists away from the site.

The CNRP accused "forces in civilian clothing" of beating demonstrators and urged its supporters not to retaliate.

Phnom Penh municipality spokesman Long Dimanche said CNRP leaders had been sent a letter telling them protests would no longer be tolerated.

"Their protests have been peaceful at the park but their supporters have marched out of the park, destroying private and public property, closing down roads and causing social instability," he said.

Amnesty International joined Cambodian rights group LICADHO in demanding an investigation into the violence. "The Cambodian government has to rein in its security forces," said Amnesty's Cambodia researcher Rupert Abbott.

Friday's violence followed a crackdown a day earlier outside a factory in another part of Phnom Penh, when armed troops hit protesters with batons, wounding 20 people. The factory’s owner makes clothing for Gap and Walmart.

The CNRP has won the support of some 350,000 garment workers from nearly 500 factories across Cambodia by promising to nearly double the monthly minimum wage to $160 if it wins a re-run of the July election, which Hun Sen is refusing to hold. The government is refusing to raise the wage beyond $100 dollars a month and has ordered factories to reopen to prevent damage and job losses in an industry worth $5 billion a year.

Garment manufacturing is Cambodia's biggest foreign currency earner and a major employer. Many Western brands outsource footwear and apparel to Cambodian factories, in part because labor is cheaper than in China.

A senior official at the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia said it was too soon to assess the cost of the strikes but estimated each factory could be losing$ 20,000-$30,000 a day.


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