Michael Batson

Travel Writer





Frying Fish - Civil and Political Unrest in Cambodia - 15 February 2014

There are some golden rules when writing on events in Southeast Asia. One of these is never write anything critical of Cambodia’s ruling elite. Expatriates in Cambodia are not invulnerable to the machinations of the domestic political scene and unwanted attention from those well connected is not something you should covet. That’s why it’s important to make use of reported speech, though even this technique may still get you into trouble. That said, here goes.

As 2014 began Cambodia was increasingly in the grip of mounting political and civil unrest. Long one of Southeast Asia’s most stable nations, Cambodia seems, as one long time Cambodia observer put it, ‘to be at tipping point.’ The government’s response has increasingly become hard line culminating in sending in the military to break-up strikes by garment workers, and banning gatherings of more than 10 people in an effort to ‘restore order’.


The government’s response to the ongoing troubles highlights two characteristics of the political landscape in Cambodia. These are what the foreign diplomatic community in Phnom Penh and Cambodia observers have identified as the lack of accountability in government circles and amongst the country’s elites; and what Human Rights Watch says is the lack of acceptance of a legitimate opposition as part of the political process.


The recent political turmoil in Cambodia stemmed from the results of the national elections in July 2013 won by the incumbent Cambodia People’s Party (CPP).  In a major surprise and a setback for Southeast Asia’s longest ruling leader, Hun Sen, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) nearly doubled its tally of seats.


Veteran opposition politician and CNRP leader Sam Rainsy claimed over one million names had been missing from the electoral rolls and complained about lack of access to the media as well as intimidation on the campaign trail. The US and EU also expressed concern about irregularities in the election. Rainsy, one of the longest serving opposition politicians in the world, and his supporters claimed they were robbed of crucial votes that would have put them in front, ending nearly 30 years of CPP rule. Criticism of the elections results were also voiced on social media, especially from the large expatriate Cambodian community in Long Beach, California where even a local politician mindful of their electorate, joined in saying Cambodians “deserved better.”


In the months following the elections thousands of Cambodians took to the streets in Phnom Penh in protest. While the opposition had floundered at times -revising its demands to include a new election -it appeared stronger than ever as 2013 came to a close. Cambodia's government however, rejected calls by the opposition for an international inquiry into allegations it used massive fraud to win re-election, and said it wanted parliament to approve a new cabinet quickly.


Disquiet about the results of the election then coincided with protests over rising prices and demands for increases in the minimum wage from a number of sectors across Cambodia. Tuk-tuk drivers protested the price of petrol; teachers and civil servants, many of who earn less than US$3 a day, called for wage rises to meet increased living costs. 


But most critical was industrial unrest amongst garment workers. Cambodia has about 800 garment and footwear factories that employ about 600,000 workers. Garment manufacturing is Cambodia's biggest export business, and earned nearly US$5.1 billion in the first 11 months of 2013 according to the Commerce Ministry.


Manufacturers such as Gap, H & M, Adidas and Nike favour Cambodia for its low-wage costs and lax enforcement of labour laws. Conditions in garment factories have been the source of much protest from long hours, low wages, poor ventilation – mass faintings of staff  were regularly reported in the media; and reported threats and intimidation by employers.


On 24 December, unions, many of which line up politically with the opposition party, called for a nationwide strike. The next day most of the garment factories shut down as more workers took to the streets to demand a liveable wage. The strike started as a protest against the government's offer to raise the industry minimum wage 19% to US$95 a month, starting from April 2014—well short of union demands for US$160 a month. Workers then rejected a sweetened offer, a 25% increase to US$100 a month starting in February, and defied government orders to return to work.


A living wage is often defined as a wage that provides for decent living for a worker and his/her dependents, within regulated working hours (not including overtime) from one income source, and should allow for some savings. There is some debate in Cambodia about what this should be and surveys of garment workers have been carried out going back to 2009, with a variety of results.


Elizabeth Daube’s recent article in the Huffington Post described meeting garment workers, most of whom are single women and seeing their living standards. For those she met, it means living in a tiny cement room that fits a wooden pallet about the size of a queen bed, a sink area for cooking and not much else. ‘Most garment workers share these spaces’ she reported, ‘where four to six people live. Most of them begin working in the factories as teenagers, around age 15 or 16.’


Following the refusal to return to work, factory workers merged with the opposition party, and tens of thousands took to the streets of the capital Phnom Penh accompanied by scores of saffron-robed monks. Many of the marches culminated at the prime minister’s home on Sihanouk Boulevard watched by lines of riot police.


Groups of riot police from the ranks of the paramilitary Royal Gendarmerie, known by their French acronym GRK, were stationed throughout Phnom Penh. In polar contrast with the warmth of most Cambodians, eye contact is met with a blank, cold stare. On Riverside where they were encamped by the Himawari Hotel, passing motorists honked their horns not in recognition or acknowledgement, but in protest at their presence.


The largely peaceful journey of civil disobedience then began to veer off course. On 2 January authorities arrested garment workers and at least three human rights advocates. Pro-government security guards and plain clothed thugs wearing red armbands stampeded through the opposition's main protest camp, Freedom Park, in the heart of the city, as tourists ate breakfast only blocks away.


Violence then erupted outside the Canadia Industrial Park in southwest Phnom Penh. Hundreds of garment workers threw rocks at security forces and created burning roadblocks. Some carried Molotov cocktails. In order to secure the area the authorities responded by opening fire with automatic weapons. The government denied their response was the result of requests by South Korea and Japan to allow factories owned by their nationals to reopen as reported by the media.


At least four people were killed and scores injured, some had been shot in the upper body. Hospital authorities reported at least one protester had been paralysed as a result of gunshots. The injuries came about reportedly following intervention by a unit of the Cambodian Army, the Indonesian-trained Brigade 911.


It came as no surprise to some human rights groups that Brigade 911 became embroiled in putting down the protests. Brad Adams, Asia Director at Human Rights Watch in New York, claimed the unit has a long history of human rights abuses. He recalled first meeting its commander, General Chap Phaekdei, in 1997 after the coup. His account of that event is an interesting insight into how some high ranking Cambodian officials conduct themselves.


Davis was then with the UN human rights office investigating widespread cases of extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances and torture. “Bodies” they said “were turning up all over the place”. After the coup the UN received reports that dozens of people were being unlawfully detained and tortured at the 911 base west of Phnom Penh International Airport. 


Today tourists visit the brigade’s shooting range and can sit around drinking with range officers having expended a few rounds and spent many dollars; all in the name of extra-curricular activities and income for the army. Young recruits in combat fatigues can seem friendly enough. When I visited some time ago, I recall a squad out running meeting my gaze with smiles.


Adams reported after interviewing some of the released detainees, he and four Cambodian colleagues from the UN human rights office went to the 911 base to investigate further. It was then that he met Chap Pheakdei. When Adams asked him about these allegations, Chap Pheakdei first strongly denied that any detainees had been held at 911. But within minutes he changed his story, admitting that some had been held but disclaiming any knowledge of what had happened to them or when they had been released.


Then a farcical scene played out. One of the UN team saw a wooden storage hut that matched the description the UN had received from detainees. They walked to the hut and knocked on the door. A person locked inside answered. All the UN heard his voice, yet Chap Pheakdei insisted there was no one there. The UN told him they would not leave until the man was produced. Chap Pheakdei then said that, yes, a man was in there, but the person with the key had left and the UN should come back the next day. Fearing for the man’s life, they UN said no.


A three-hour standoff ensued. By then it was dark. Chap Pheakdei’s forces were overheard in Khmer referring to the UN staff on their hand-held radios, asking “Should we fry these fish?” the response was, “These fish are too big to fry.” The Cambodian staff only told Adams on their way home, saying they didn’t want to worry him. Adams was amazed by their bravery.


Brigade 911 has been accused of a litany of abuses in the years since. But instead of removing Chap Pheakdei from the military or prosecuting him and his subordinates, Chap Pheakdei has been promoted. In an illustration of the lack of accountability highlighted by foreign observers, he is now even a member of the ruling CPP Central Committee, such are the rewards for one being one of the government’s most loyal commanders.


In the face of such intimidation how should people conduct themselves when protesting? Before the main crackdown letters to the English-language Cambodia Daily stressed the important reasons why protestors must remain non-violent, namely that it doubles the chances of success. Research shows they said, that, however high the temptation or tempers, using armed resistance against illegal state violence, such as disproportionate and extreme use of force, actually hurts rather than advances democracy movements in the immediate and long term. Other letters claimed that clothes made in Cambodia are “tainted in blood”.


The question remains, however, as to how to maintain nonviolence in the face of extreme violence. The answer apparently, is through practice. Nonviolent practitioners throughout history have shown that skills determine the success of democracy movements, and the greatest skill is that of nonviolent discipline. To acquire that discipline takes preparation and training. Gene Sharpe, the father of nonviolent strategic research stresses that the stronger the nonviolent discipline the stronger the movement. He also says that the greater the use of governmental forces to quell unrest, the weaker the state.


In the media the leadership of the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia (GMAC) called the death of protesters “collateral damage” and described the use of lethal weapons by the military as “absolutely” appropriate. Ken Loo, the GMAC’s secretary-general later wrote a letter saying that his comments were taken out of context, saying he was saddened by the violence.


The aftermath of the violence is ongoing. The fate of 23 protesters arrested by the military is unknown. After days of investigation by the media they were located at a provincial prison but access by human rights groups, their families and to medical care was being denied. The financial impact of the latest strikes on the economy is hard to gauge. A rough assessment—based on historical export data and the number of working days lost—suggests that garment makers may have lost hundreds of millions of dollars in output. The GMAC has threatened to sue the unions for damages and loss of earnings.


Human rights lawyers have said that the government acted unconstitutionally as only King Norodom Sihamoni can declare a state of emergency in Cambodia. After the Ministry of Interior temporarily banned demonstrations, which they said was to allow for a “cool down period” the courts summoned opposition leaders Sam Rainsy and his deputy, Kem Sokha to appear on charges of inciting the violence. The opposition's staying power and resilience will be put to test.


The violence also illustrates a wider problem. Military units in Cambodia and elsewhere are not trained to deal with protests and should not be deployed for crowd control. Adams says donors and countries such as the US, which have relations with the Cambodian military, should demand the end of the use of the army or political reasons.


Instead of banning demonstrations he says, donors should insist that the government respect the rights of workers or the political opposition to freedom of assembly, association and expressions. If crowd control measures are necessary, this should be the job of the police, not the army or paramilitary force like the gendarmerie.


Will the government authorise an independent investigation that follows responsibility wherever the trail leads, even if it points to the military leadership or the government? Human Rights Watch says sadly, this is unlikely. ‘While impunity flourishes among the Cambodian leadership, a willingness to address it is nowhere in sight.’


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